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Roger Clarke **
Review Version of 23 April 2006
The previous version was that of 26 January 2006
Prepared for the Special Issue of the Australian Journal of Information Systems on 'The State of the IS Discipline'
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2005-06
Available under an AEShareNet licence or a Creative Commons licence.
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/AISHist0605.html
Information Systems emerged as a discipline in the 1960s. It has struggled to define itself, its scope, and its relationship with its neighbouring disciplines in the computing and management arenas. Despite that, it has grown into a diverse and busy community. The discipline in Australia numbers some 700 people, and it has had impacts on the international stage. This paper charts key events in its first four decades, identifies what appear to the author to be the key themes, provides a body of references for future historians to consider in greater detail and from other perspectives, and raises questions for the future.
The Information Systems (IS) discipline has mostly been far too concerned about ensuring its future to spend much time celebrating, or even understanding, its past. But, as pioneers retire, it's time to consolidate sources and memories and provide some historical background to this vibrant but often-troubled field.
The author has been active in the IS discipline since 1970, that is to say not from the very beginning, but from very shortly afterwards. Because the author was a participant in, or a contemporaneous observer of, many of the phases dealt with, his perspectives are inevitably embedded in the analysis. In addition, the author is not a trained historian. For these reasons, the paper is entitled 'a retrospective' rather than 'a history'. It has, however, drawn on a wide variety of sources, and will hopefully make a contribution to an emergent 'court history' of the discipline.
The project was suggested by Guy Gable and Bob Smyth, as an adjunct to the work of the 'IS in ANZ' project team. It is intentionally framed so as to complement the studies undertaken by that team during 2004-06 in relation to the current state of the discipline in Australia and New Zealand. Although the author has spent a considerable amount of time overseas, he has spent very little time in New Zealand. Hence, despite the scope addressed by the team as a whole, this paper gives no specific consideration to the history of IS in Australia's near-neighbour.
The retrospective begins at the beginning. Research into the discipline's birth led to 1965 and 1967 as the most tenable start-dates. The analysis reaches beyond 1995 only selectively. This is partly because of the scale of the undertaking, and partly because lack of perspective makes it much more difficult to write convincingly about 'recent history' than about 'ancient history'. Some attempt has been made to present information dispassionately. But the attempt has largely failed, partly due to the author's inherent and unavoidable biases, and partly because of the conflicting aim of achieving at least some degree of readability and stimulation.
A history can be approached from a variety of directions. Because it is something of a 'trail-blazing' exercise, this paper is intentionally eclectic. It blends (or perhaps muddles) the approaches of the chronicler (who did what when?), the historian of ideas (where were concepts, models and theories appropriated from? what scope has been evident? what topics have been important? what propositions were debated?), and the political historian (what power bases existed? what skirmishes were fought? who won?). Little time is spent on historiography or critical thinking (who wrote what, with what biases, and for what purpose?). First we need some sources. Only then can the battle to own history begin.
My own perspectives and biases regarding the scope of the IS discipline are will become apparent progressively through the paper, but two aspects need to be addressed at the outset. Rather than commencing with a discussion about 'what is IS?' and 'what should IS be?', this paper sets out with the pragmatic approach that 'IS is what IS does'. Only at the end does it attempt to reflect the rich and at times tumultous debates about those questions. The second limitations is that the traditions with which I am most familiar are those of Australian IS, US MIS (management information systems) and Wirtschaftsinformatik in German-speaking countries (which is most appropriately translated as 'business information systems'). Even these three provide ample evidence of different flavours. But there is also a measure of unanimity about the discipline's scope-in-action, and the matters that, at any given time, have been proper topics to be considered by the discipline's members.
The research method adopted was heavily based on secondary research, starting with the author's own substantial archives dating from 1970, followed by searches for relevant published resources. This was supplemented by face-to-face interviews with a number of key players during the early years, and email interchanges and telephone conversations with a substantial number of people, both in Australia and overseas. Many of these sessions resulted in further references that needed to be reviewed. The Acknowledgements section lists the individuals on whom I have placed greatest reliance. The now-compulsory 'web-trawl' delivered some hits of consequence. The intended review of IS departments' sites for historically-relevant material was not proceeded with, because the sampling that was performed suggested that there were more promising avenues in which to invest the available time. The only formalised departmental histories that were unearthed were Greig & Levin (1989) regarding Computing at Caulfield/Chisholm (1965-88) and Dreyfus (2004) regarding the University of Melbourne (1994-2004).
The 'IS in ANZ' team reviewed and provided substantial and substantive feedback on the proposal in March 2005, on a sketch in May 2005, on an interim report in November 2005, and on a draft in January 2006. [A Request For Comment was then emailed to a moderate number of senior members of the discipline.]
The paper commences by considering the intellectual origins of the IS discipline. Building on this foundation, key events are identified that are associated with the establishment of the discipline, both overseas and in Australia. The development of the discipline is then traced, using a variety of metrics. Consideration is given to the strong international orientation of the discipline in Australia. The latter parts of the paper identify some key themes, both of a political and an intellectual nature.
The foundations of IS can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century rational management stream of thought, associated with Fayol and Taylor. Although usually interpreted as being about efficiency in the use of physical resources through understanding of the 'time and motion' of agents, the movement is easily re-interpreted as also being about the use of information. Drucker (1968) included a large section on what he called 'the knowledge economy', and that we would currently refer to as 'the information economy'. He argued that "the idea that knowledge, systematically acquired, could be applied systematically to work is no more than 200 to 250 years old" (p. 328), and first occurred in tool makers and tool designers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, who laid the foundation for the industrial revolution.
Automated equipment, in particular punched-card handling devices, had been in use in large-scale applications date at the very beginning of the 20th century, in particular the U.S. Census (e.g. Kistermann 1991). The invention, articulation, application and rapid improvement of electro-mechanical and then electronic computers during the period 1935-50 is well-documented (e.g. Campbell-Kelly 2003, Norberg 2005). These initiatives were motivated by the processing of ephemeral data into significant results, rather than what we would now call data management. Technologies to provide permanent storage quickly came to be seen as an important adjunct to computation, and the complex of technologies needed to support what became computer-based IS quickly emerged.
The use of electronic computers for the processing of administrative data brought a very substantial impetus to the emergence of the IS discipline. Applications of this kind commenced simultaneously in the U.K. and the U.S.A. in 1951, with Leo at the Lyons Tea Company, and Eckert and Mauchly's Univac 1 at the U.S. Census (e.g. Caminer et al. 1998, Land 2000). The first installation of a computer in a U.S. company expressly for administrative purposes appears to have occurred only in 1954, for payroll at GE in Louisville KY (Mason 2005). (To extract a comprehensive history of the early years of business applications of computing, it is necessary to read beyond the substantial U.S. literature on the subject. Many U.S. publications subscribe to the myth that very little of consequence happened outside the U.S.A., and merely footnote German and particularly British work, even though it was vital from the 1930s into the 1960s). The tempo in the U.S. picked up very quickly, as banks and airlines recognised opportunities, and even more quickly after the emergence of computer architectures designed for business applications, particularly the IBM 360-series from 1964. From about 1960 onwards, US energy has dominated innovation in Australia, as elsewhere.
The emergence of the IS discipline was in historical terms brisk, but to an observer at the time would have appeared laboured and wayward. It appears to have followed somewhat different paths in various countries and regions, with distinct flavours discernible in the USA, the UK, Germany, Scandinavia and Australia. The myopia of English-language cultures makes it likely that critical ideas from other countries are likely to be overlooked, or inaccurately attributed.
Differences also occurred within countries, particularly those of substantial geographical size. The term 'the tyrrany of distance' (coined by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey in his 1966 book of that name) may seem quaint to post-Internet generations, but it afflicted countries the size of Australia, Canada and the USA. During the early years of the IS discipline, with no coordinative mechanisms such as an information infrastructure any more sophisticated than the voice-only services over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and textual data over the telegraph and telex networks, and with no accreditation panels, no curriculum committees, no text-books, and few conferences, there was ample scope for strong, energetic and visionary individuals to have significant local, regional and national impact.
It was natural that the new interest in information would draw both on existing disciplines and professions for which data and its processing were already an interest, and on emergent disciplines that were adopting new approaches made feasible by the new technology. The dominant strands appear to have been Accounting and the emergent Computer Science, together with threads arising from a range of other sources. The following were of particular importance:
Beyond the intellectual sources were those dictated by pragmatics. The application of computers to administrative, commercial, industrial and government purposes required the development of software. The required rapid production of software developers depended upon the expression and structuring of 'know-how' into what would now be called 'codified knowledge' about what came to be called analysis, design and programming. During the period from 1967 until about the mid-1980s, this practical need had a substantial impact on the conception of the scope of the IS discipline. Since then, it has drifted away from the mainstream of IS, and IS from it. It has become either or both of the independent, cognate discipline of software engineering, or a substantial component of the adjacent discipline of computer science. To many IS academics, the perspective typified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) is far too narrow and mechanical, with its reductionist conception of systems analysis as 'requirements engineering'?
As a frame within which the remainder of this paper is developed, some clustering of the themes and topic can be suggested, as follows:
It is stressed that this clustering represents an artificially clean taxonomy. As evidenced by the appearance of 'adoption' in multiple clusters, there was continual cross-feeding, and co-evolution of thinking. At the end of the paper, I will also consider tensions among the technology, organisations and systems thinking clusters. Particularly during the formative years, the process and the product were highly eclectic, as each local leader sought to make sense of the domain, and contribute to progress.
This section briefly reviews the beginnings of IS in Europe and North America. It is not intended as a contribution to a broad IS history literature (because that would require much deeper treatment). Its purpose is to provide a backdrop to the early years in Australia.
The dominance of North American contributors in the published literature suggests that the USA was first in the field. The evidence actually suggests that the emergence of IS may have been slightly earlier in Europe, and only slightly lagged in Australia. [No material has been located at this stage in relation to the early years in Canada].
Borje Langefors was appointed Professor in Information Processing at the University of Stockholm in 1965. He proposed a theoretical basis for IS based on "the infological equation I = i (D, S, T), where I stands for information, D data, S the recipient prior knowledge as result of the individual's life experience, T the time, and i the interpretation process" (Shen 2003). His early text (Langefors 1966) was translated into English, although it is not easy to judge the extent of its impact on thinking in English-speaking countries. The 'infological equation' is reflected in Mason (2005), which refers to information as "data interpreted within a point-of-view" (p. 14), and in my own explanation of information as "data that has value [that] depends upon context" (Clarke 1992b). Both also appear to relate to Wiener's conception of information as 'data that an organisation could employ for the direction of its activities' (Mason 2005). It is in stark contrast with the Shannon & Weaver conception of information as 'a measure of one's freedom of choice when one selects a message'. That works brilliantly when applied to the transmission of data over a noisy channel, but very poorly in the contexts addressed by IS.
In the U.K., key appointments occurred in 1967: Frank Land at the London School of Economics (LSE), and Peter Keen at the London School of Business (LBS). Together with Enid Mumford, already at Manchester, there were now three separate and rather different flavours. A key publication appeared in the same year: 'The Computer and the Clerk' (Mumford & Banks 1967). This greatly influenced the conception and scope of IS in the U.K., which has generally been attuned to a human-oriented interpretation of systems thinking that reflects the intrisic ambiguity of the contexts in which information is used and information technology applied, and the existence of a range of perspective that need to be factored into analyses. This was noticeable in the contributions of Ron Stamper at LSE from 1972, Niels Bjorn-Andersen, a Mumford PhD, who was in Copenhagen also from 1972, and Peter Checkland at Lancaster.
Scandinavia has also had a long and stong association with the organisation and human behaviour aspects of IS, whereas in Germany there has been a sustained and strong orientation towards data processing and software development (Avgerou et al. 1999). The journal Wirtschaftsinformatik appears to have been in print before 1965 (given that 2005 is Vol. 47). [CHECKING with Wolfgang Koenig]
The history of the IS discipline in North America (and, to a considerable extent, the world as a whole) is associated by many with the appointment of Gordon Davis to a Chair at Minnesota in 1967. The context in this case was accounting within a graduate school of business, but impregnated with systems thinking. The field was described as 'management information systems' (MIS). Mason (2005, p. 21) traces the origins of the term at least as far back as a 1962 book by James D. Gallagher.
Davis had already published an introductory textbook on computers for business students (Davis 1965), but his key intellectual contributions are encapsulated in his 'conceptual foundations' text (Davis 1974, Davis & Olson 1984). Davis spent close to four decades at Minnesota, 1967-2004. Many of the people whose doctorates he supervised have been active supervisors as well, and by his retirement the 'family' had reached the fourth generation and a total count of over 100.
The year 1967 also saw the appointment of Bill King at Pittsburgh, coming from an OR perspective, and grafting on from other disciplines as appropriate. MIS was established at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) by no later than 1968, also growing out of Accounting, but also with a strong 'systems thinking' emphasis (Mason 2005). Dan Couger published on systems analysis and development techniques, also in a manner imbued with systems thinking. Jim Emery published foundation text-books (Emery 1969, 1971). Macfarlan and Scott Morton at Harvard Business School published on management aspects of IS from the late 1960s onwards.
Banker & Kauffman (2004) note that Mngt. Sci. started a column on 'Information Systems in Management Science' in 1967, edited by Harry Stern, and included IS in the first departmental structure of the journal in 1969. The Society for Information Management (SIM), which has always been targeted at the needs of the senior IS executive (in contemporary fashion, the CIO), was an important supporter from 1968. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), particularly through its SIGBDP (Special Interest Group for Business Data Processing) and The Institute for Management Science (TIMS) also provided support and considerable influence, from the computing and the operations research perspectives respectively.
In the U.S.A., MIS has been imbued with a rationalist approach to systems thinking. Rationalism may be 'bounded', but 'satisficing' is still rational. There is limited scope for looseness, such as soft systems, contexts that lack a single powerful entity that can dictate a requirements statement, serendipity, and what Ciborra called 'bricolage'. Strategically successful IS have to be attributed to intelligent management, and cannot be seen to be the semi-accidental result of complex interactions. In the rationalist view, tensions between perspectives are capable of being balanced out, but in many cases are simply over-ridden in deference to some 'greater good'. The 'greater good' is of course rational, but from some particular perspective - generally that of the most powerful player, or alliance of players.
Clearly, the stark juxtaposition of 'hard U.S.' versus 'soft British' philosophies in IS is a fairly gross over-simplification, and subject to many qualifications, particularly in recent years as the level of trans-atlantic communications, interactions, and alliances has increased. In particular, a number of U.S. writers have argued the case for interpretivism, e.g. Boland (1978), Lee (1994), Chen & Hirschheim (2004). Nonetheless, the tension between the 'hard' and the 'soft' exists; and it is not infrequent that the distinction is a regional one.
A 'retrospective' needs to adopt a largely chronological presentation, and to divide the period covered into digestible pieces. One possibility is to apply an interpretation of the phases of the information technology, such as that in Exhibit 1.
Grosch's Law – Bigger is more efficient
VLSI / micros – More is more efficient
Commoditisation – Chips with everything
Star - Centralised
Multi-connected - Decentralised
Wireless - Ubiquitous
Master-Slave - Control
Client-Server - Request-Response
P2P - Collaboration
|Software and Content|
Confusion and Tension
Authoritarianism - Intolerance
Confusion and Tension
Democracy and Frustrated Intolerance
After (Clarke 2004 at Exhibit 3.7)
That would be unsatisfactory, however, because although technology has been a driver, and even the major driver, it has not been determinative of the development of the IS discipline. This section presents what appear to the author to have been the key events in the emergence of the discipline in Australia, divided into three chunks of time that are proposed as being useful rather than decisive. A related but somewhat different division is used by Mason (2005): pre-formation - mid-18th century to 1954 (addressed in section 2 above), gestation - 1954-68 (sections 4.1-4.3 below), birth - 1968-2000 (sections 4.3-4.4 below, sub-divided for reasons specific to the Australian context), and rebirth - 2000- (which is only addressed only in the closing sections of this paper).
Australia has something of a history in automated computation. In particular, the world's first totalisator, for 'totalling up' wagers, particularly on horse-races, and sharing the pool among the winning bets (and extracting fees and taxes) was invented in Western Australia by George Julius c. 1913 (e.g. Bennett 1994, p. 7, 31-32). Although this was an entirely mechanical system, electrical components were later added. Julius' company enjoyed a worldwide monopoly for some time.
Later, the fourth electronic digital computer, CSIR Mk 1 (1948-56), was completely 'home-grown' in Australia, at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Division of Radiophysics in Sydney (Pearcey 1988, pp. 12-19, 160. See also Bennett 1994, pp. 15-58, esp. 16-30). Mk I's successor, CSIRAC, ran 1956-64 at the University of Melbourne. The University of Sydney's locally-designed and built SILLIAC ran 1954-68, and the University also designed and built SNOCOM for the Snowy Mountains Authority (1960-67). Adapted versions of imported machines ran at UNSW (UTECOM, 1956-66) and the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) (WREDAC, also 1956-66). There is a persistent mythology in Australia that the CSIRO abandoned investment in computing in favour of cloud-seeding. This story is all the more poignant when it is appreciated that the last CSIRO-developed computer, c. 1963-68, was called the Cirrus (Pearcey 1988, p. 66). A recent international perspective on the early years is in Chapter 7, 'Wizards of Oz', in Hally (2005, pp. 161-184). The predominant influences throughout this formative period were British rather than American, which derived in considerable measure from John Bennett's work on the earliest machines in the U.K., including the first stored-program computer, EDSAC, at Cambridge.
Pearcey (1988, p. 157) and Bennett (1994, p. 26) identify the first computer conference in Australia as having been held in March 1951 in Sydney, and run by the University of Sydney and CSIRO (in 1949, CSIR had been re-named as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation - CSIRO). Bennett (1994, p. 28) cites papers in the Proceedings of an April 1952 Conference on Automatic Computing Machines, run by CSIRO, although this may have been a late publication of the papers from the 1951 event.
The 2nd Conference on Automatic Computing and Data Processing was held in June 1957 at WRE (later re-named the Defence Science & Technology Organisation - DSTO) at Salisbury, north of Adelaide. It had three sections, one of which was 'Business Applications'. The conference chair, John Ovenstone, contributed a paper on 'Business and Accountancy Data Processing' (Pearcey 1988, p. 47-48). This was only six years after the first commercial use in the U.K. and the first governmental use in the U.S., and only three years after the first commercial use in the U.S.
Until 1957, the c. 8 computers in Australia were all in universities and the WRE. But by 1960 there were 34 in government alone, and by 1963 c. 80 computers (Pearcey 1988, pp. 137, 159), few of them intended for research per se. Commonwealth government agencies, commencing with the Department of Defence and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), had installed computers for administrative tasks. In Defence, for example, John Ovenstone, an immigrant from the U.K., was appointed to the new position of Controller of ADP at senior level (Band 2 SES), and drove the project 1958-64 (Pearcey 1988, pp. 72-74). The organisationally logical way for bureaucracies to integrate programmable computers into their ways of working was to conceive of them as super-tabulators, and manage them in a similar way.
The first Australian companies to install computers are understood to have been the two insurance companies AMP and MLC, both in 1960, nine years after the first in the U.K., and six years after the first in the U.S. In interview, Bill Caeilli said that BHP had IBM 1401 and 1440 models installed in Newcastle and Wollongong by no later than 1962, and applied them to a variety of operations management and commercial functions.
The Australian Committee on Computation and Automatic Control (ANCCAC) was formed in 1959, with John Bennett as Chair. It appears that "the First [ANCCAC] Conference was held at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW on 24-27 May 1960 under the chairmanship of Dr. J. M. Bennett of SILLIAC fame" (McDowell 2002). According to McDowell, 43 of the 158 papers at the event were focussed on 'Commercial Applications'.
Computing was a new field and suffered the classic 'bootstrapping' problem. Very few staff with the necessary background were available for hire - although migrants from the U.K. who could claim some relevant background such as cryptanalysis were in demand. Tertiary institutions could not yet offer courses, because they had no staff who could develop courses and provide instruction. Agencies initially depended heavily on such training as was available from the suppliers of the technology they had purchased, and on the internal training schemes that they put together. A limited set of design techniques was available at this stage; but Bill Caelli recalls Fred O'Toole at BHP Newcastle being a strong fan of decision tables in 1963.
Training within the Commonwealth public sector was formalised as the Programmer in Training (PIT) scheme, commencing in 1963 (Bennett 1994, p. 108, ABS 2005). This "was oriented toward training staff for establishing and running commercial and administrative applications of computing"(Pearcey 1988, p. 122), and involved "a full year at about twenty hours per week of class time, and effectively more than twenty hours per week of related private study" (p. 121). The scheme was run in Canberra by the Department of Defence for its own staff, and by the then Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS, soon after re-named the Australian Bureau of Statistics - ABS) for itself and other agencies. Melbourne courses were run by the Postmaster General's Department (PMG). Coordination was provided by the Public Service Board (PSB, disestablished in 1987).
The CBCS/ABS variant was what would later be called a 'sandwich course', including "two ten-week stints of on-the-job training". In interview, Gerry Maynard said that the content was about 50% programming and 50% systems analysis and design. The CBCS 1965 syllabus included two languages FORTRAN and COMPASS (CDC's Assembler), and the ABS 1971 syllabus somehow managed to cram in COBOL as well. "Exams at the end of the year included a major systems analysis and design exam for which a time was allowed of 'up to seven hours if required'" (ABS 2005).
Some hundreds of people entered the industry through these courses, primarily into the Commonwealth public service, but with substantial ripple-effects into State government agencies and the private sector. (My professional life in IS began in 1971, when I was hired into the Sydney industrial corporation Wormalds by Neville Clissold, a 1965 PIT scheme graduate).
By the mid-1960s, courses which were the precursors to what became 'Computer Science' were emerging in various tertiary institutions in various Departments, including Physics, Engineering and Mathematics. For example, the author was subjected to a (crippled) sub-set of Fortran called IITran in 1967, in UNSW's Department of Mathematics.
In 1965, the Caulfield Institute appears to have established the first specialist Department, called Electronic Data Processing (EDP). The foundation staff were John McClelland, Doug Mills, Jack White and Pearl Levin, joined soon afterwards by Peter Juliff, Bob Grant and Gerry Maynard. Trevor Pearcey joined as Head in 1972. The courses combined instruction about technology with teaching about how to apply it. Programming was a central feature, because all applications had to be custom-built, few utilities were available, and the era of code libraries was yet to arrive (Greig & Levin 1985).
Meanwhile, IS topics were emerging in university Accounting Departments. These were isolated, and the period is poorly documented. From my personal knowledge, Phil Grouse was offering full units at UNSW by no later than 1968, whose purpose was to enable Commerce students to understand computers, software and their applications, programming languages, and software development. Interviews have provided mentions of the then Wollongong College of UNSW, of Doug Campbell of the University of Melbourne (Campbell 1970), and of Ed Dunn at the University of Tasmania. Sydney and Melbourne were major world cities, and Wollongong was one of the major centres in the then-very-large steel industry. Hobart's early activity was presumably stimulated by the installation at the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission.
Further Australian Computer Conferences were organised by ANCCAC in 1963 in Melbourne - the 2nd, and in 1966 in Canberra - the 3rd (Pearcey 1988, p. 130). Meanwhile, various State-based associations of practitioners emerged during the first half of the 1960s. All were well-educated, and scientific in outlook. The Australian Computer Society (ACS) was formed in 1966 through the federation of those associations.
The PIT scheme was operated by at least the ABS until 1972. In interview, Cyril Brookes said that he arranged for a course to be run in Port Kembla in the late 1960s, to support local industry, especially the BHP steelworks. Commencing in the late 1960s, a transition was begun to several several Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs). For example, the ABS conducted training in conjunction with the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE), with an internal Bureau exam. By 1972, Caulfield Institute in Melbourne, Bendigo College, and CCAE in Canberra were all operating award courses whose origins could be traced to the PIT scheme (Gerry Maynard in interview, Greig & Levin 1985, Pearcey 1988 pp. 121-122). Caulfield developed the course into a formal Graduate Diploma in Data Processing, and then expanded into a range of other specialised postgraduate courses.
Internal training courses continued to have their advantages (e.g. Fiedler 1969, 1970), but gradually what would later come to be called 'outsourcing' was applied. For new entrants, courses were provided primarily by universities and CAEs although training in specific programming languages and software products was offered by suppliers. Continuing professional development courses were conducted by universities, CAEs, suppliers and the emergent private sector training companies.
The ACS established the Australian Computer Journal (ACJ) in 1967, and for many years also published a second-tier, non-refereed Australian Computer Bulletin (ACB). Until the establishment of Austral. J. Infor. Syst. in 1994, these were the only directly relevant domestic outlets for Australian IS academics. It also took over the Australian Computer Conferences (ACC), and ran well-attended events commencing with the 4th in August 1969 and the 5th in Brisbane in May 1972, then biennially and then annually with the last of the 18 held in 1991 (Bennett 1994, p. 296). By the early 1990s, the computing community had become the Information Technology (IT) community, and had splintered into a great many specialist conferences. With that, the attractiveness of a focal event waned.
An annual Computing in CAEs Conference also ran for some years through the 1970s. [References needed!]
The papers presented at these conferences were lightly refereed in comparison to the ACJ, but the topics are of relevance to an analysis of the preoccupations of the profession and discipline at the time, e.g. my own first paper at ACC was entitled 'Top-Down Structured Programming in COBOL' (Clarke 1976).
A measure of the explosion in business applications between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s can be gauged from the once-fraught area of payroll processing. The earliest payroll applications were written by large government agencies and corporations in the early-to-mid 1960s. In interview, Bill Caelli recalled using the patch-panel of an IBM 407 in late 1962 to program payroll for IBM Newcastle. In 1971-72, working as a systems analyst for an industrial company, I had little option but to design and write a payroll application to run on the company's GE405. Yet in 1975, working for a shipping company with 400 employees and a Honeywell 2000, I had a choice of several packages, one of which was adapted to satisfy some specific requirements, and converted to run on the company's machine, with little difficulty or delay. In short, the passage from custom-built applications to a mature market of packaged applications required, for this particular application, little more than a decade. This had substantial implications for the nature of market demand, and hence IS syllabi.
Academics in foundation disciplines such as mathematics and physics played a considerable part in the establishment of the ACS, but its primary role quickly became that of a professional association. Its most direct relationship with tertiary institutions was as an accreditation body, assessing the suitability of courses as a basis for professional Membership of the Society. As Pearcey (1988, p. 131) put it, "the direction of development of the ACS moved away from its early, more academic style to represent the wider interests of [its] new membership more directly". This nicely encapsulates the way in which the relationship between profession and discipline has frequently seemed to be as much about tension and distance as about mutual respect and cooperation.
ACS has played an important role in the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), whose Working Groups ran, and continue to run, important international conferences in the Computer Science and IS disciplines. Several Australians have been major players in IFIP, including Ashley Goldsworthy as President, and Bill Caelli as Chair of TC11; and several major IFIP conferences were held in Australia, including the World Congress in 1980, and a major TC8 conference in 1984.
An important step in the maturation of the computer industry was the 'unbundling' of software from hardware. Until IBM's announcement in 1969, computers had been purchased for a single price, with such software as the supplier could offer included. As the sophistication and significance grew, software needed to be priced separately. That in turn led to greater visibility, and what would now be called 'openness', such that specialist software developers could offer add-on and replacement software (e.g. Campbell-Kelly 2003).
By about 1970, IS was becoming a recognisable disciplinary activity within universities. At the University of Queensland, an Honours unit was available by 1970, taught by a British academic Peter Richards. Ross Jeffery and Ron Weber were in the same University of Queensland Honours class in 1970-72, and both submitted Honours theses on IS topics. Ron Weber's, in 1972, was entitled 'An Examination of File Structures for Information Processing Systems'.
My own Honours thesis at UNSW, also in 1972, was on an IS-related management accounting topic. It is noteworthy that, of the strands noted in section 2 above, all were represented in the readings set for the Management Accounting units in my own Honours year in 1972, architected by liberal Accounting Prof. Bill Stewart, with the exceptions of O&M (which had already been covered in undergraduate IS), management theory (represented by Ackoff and Likert, but not yet by Macfarlan and Scott Morton), and socio-technical and soft- systems thinking (which were yet to make their impact in Australia, and in any case did not fit well to the then strongly numerate and rational patterns of management accounting and the emergent IS/MIS discipline). I have no record or memory of the Minnesota school having an influence at that stage, although it did soon afterwards; nor do I have any memory of contact between the Queensland and UNSW schools until after 1972. Ross Jeffery did, however, join UNSW from Queensland in [1973-74?].
Although much of the intellectual basis of the IS discipline in Australia was provided by Americans, the materials used for teaching professional knowledge to undergraduates during the foundation years was much more eclectic. In this author's experience, some came from technology suppliers (mostly American, but some British), much was home-grown, and at least as many texts and articles were from U.K. origins as from the U.S. In interview, Bill Caelli referred to early systems analysis courses deriving from the Leo experience in the U.K., and Cyril Brookes bemoaned the lack of appropriate text-books as late as the end of the 1970s.
It is instructive to compare developments in IS with the emergence of Computer Science. Although CS units emerged from the late 1950s in departments of physics, electrical engineering, mathematics and statistics, the growth was very slow until the mid-to-late 1960s. According to Pearcey (1988, pp. 103-118), Departments of Computer Science emerged in the following order: Basser at University of Sydney (out of Physics, John Bennett, c. 1956 and independent from 1959), Adelaide (John Ovenstone, 1964), UNSW (out of Electrical Engineering, M.W. Allen, emergent from 1965), Monash (initially Information Science, C.S. Wallace, 1968), Queensland (G.A. Rose, 1969), Melbourne (Peter Poole, 1972), Tasmania (Arthur Sale, 1974).
Offerings in computer science in most cases migrated from postgraduate diplomas back to final-year undergraduate, eventually expanding into full majors. It appears that the first full Computer Science majors became available only in 1975, at the Universities of Melbourne and Tasmania (Bennett 1994, p. 152). By then, demand had ensured that many universities offered IS service units, a few had emergent IS majors, and many CAEs and Institutes offered postgraduate diploma courses in various areas of computing, including IS. As Pearcey put it, "in some institutions special courses which concentrate upon administrative uses in computing are offered outside the formal computing departments and centres" (1988, p. 116). A critical difference was that, by the end of 1973, there were at least 6 Professors of Computer Science, but none of IS.
The development of Computer Science was explosive. Sufficient full Professorships existed, and more were established. The Australian Computer Science Conference (ACSC) was established in 1978, the Australian Association of Professors of Computer Science (AAPCS) was formed in 1982, and the total academic staff-count more than trebled from 1981 to 1990, to 388 (Sale 1994). By 1988, there were c. 1,200 computer majors graduating from departments of computer science or similar, in 17 universities and 22 CAEs (Pearcey 1988, p. 124).
The political development of the IS discipline, on the other hand, lagged computer science by over 15 years, hamstrung by the absence of the political power associated with a department and at least one full professor. In 1974, UNSW appointed the first Professor of IS, Cyril Brookes, and formed the first University IS Department, almost a decade after the CAE sector had started to form departments of computing and data processing. This was a strategic measure by the Dean of the Faculty of Commerce & Economics, Athol Carrington. The Australian Financial Review reported at the time that "the appointment was the first at an Australian university specifically directed towards the financial and managerial applications of computers and operations research technology" (McGregor 1974).
In interview in mid-2005, Brookes said that in the mid-1970s there was no body of knowledge, and no clear foundation on which to build it. The SDLC and database management had emerged in the late 1960s. But it required years of experimentation and refinement before they matured and merged into structured analysis and design. Only then was a framework available over which project management could be overlaid, as a basis for teaching and research. In addition, no prior student knowledge of technology could be assumed, so a considerable amount of time had to be spent on introductory computing topics. Brookes suggested that UNSW was an innovator in placing data analysis in an entry unit in the mid-to-late 1970s, to establish disciplined thought at an early stage. Many institutions had great difficulty breaking the road-block presented by longstanding and powerful competitor departments that prevented IS from occupying more than one narrow thread in first year.
In interview, Gerry Maynard indicated that curriculum development at Caulfield was largely insular, with little coming in from overseas. Course committees were more effective in communicating what needs industry had. Ron Weber also considered that the published curricula that progressively emerged, primarily in the USA but also the UK, while informative, were not well-fitted to the Australian content. They were comprehensive, and oriented towards either computer science or the specifically U.S. form of graduate schools of business. Because limited time was available within IS service units, topics had to be selected, and integrated into local course environments, particularly 'accounting information systems'.
A major report on computer education needs and resources was published in late 1975 (Smith & de Ferranti 1975, usually referred to as the Barry-Barry Report). The report, commissioned by the Australian Commission on Advanced Education, presaged the rapid growth in small business computer systems and packaged software.
The author's Masters sub-thesis, completed at UNSW in 1976, appears to have been one of the early postgraduate contributions. Its title, 'The Implementation of Functional System Design and Development Techniques in a COBOL Environment', is indicative of maturity in the software development phase of IS.
The late 1970s saw progress internationally, with the first IS-specific refereed journals in 1977 (MISQ and I&M), the conversion of the longstanding IS journal Database to refereed form in 1979, and the first ICIS in 1980. During 1977-82, I was in professional positions in London and Zürich, and my archives and memories of the IS discipline during this period are limited.
From about 1980, as large amounts of product-related training became necessary, the vocational education sector and particularly Colleges of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) became very active in the IT area. A number of private colleges also emerged, a few of which have been active for an extended period.
The first local text-book appears to have been Brookes et al. (1982). It had few competitors, and had some success overseas as well. The orientation in Universities was most commonly towards application software development, particularly analysis and design, in order to draw the focus of development away from programming and achieve relevant and effective information systems. There were parallel developments in IS management, and in decision support. Over time, information management became a distinguishable body of knowledge, and intellectual relationships developed with library science.
After UNSW's pioneering move, other early movers at departmental level were QIT (now QUT) and NSWIT (now UTS). But there was a long delay before recognition of the discipline was sufficient for further full professorial positions to be created. The next Professorship took until 1981 to emerge, and even then Ron Weber's position at the University of Queensland (1981-2004) was throughout a joint Accounting and IS role. The next appointments were not until 1990, at UTS and Monash. Monash, when it absorbed Chisholm in 1988, took over the mantle from QIT/QUT as the largest concentration of computing-related academics in Australia. Snapshots of IS Professorships in Australia are provided in Appendix 3.
The first doctorate that was competed by an Australian and was clearly in IS was that by Ron Weber, supervised by Gordon Davis, and awarded by the University of Minnesota in 1978. The first IS doctorates completed in Australia appear to have been those by Errol Iselin in 1982 and Iris Vessey in 1984, both at the University of Queensland and both supervised by Ron Weber. Ross Jeffery completed his at UNSW in 1986 under Cyril Brookes, and Rick Watson at Minnesota in 1987 under Gordon Davis. Appendix 4 lists the IS PhDs known to have been completed by Australians from the first in 1978 to 1995.
The author conducted surveys of the prior computer-usage experience of first-year students in accounting from 1984 until 1992. The first commoditised personal computing device (the Apple II in 1977) and the accompanying first spreadsheet modeller (Visicalc) had laid the foundations. But it took a further 15 years, to the early 1990s, before matriculating students entering Australian business faculties had sufficient exposure that computing basics could be switched from core to remedial mode. Although entrants to IS courses tended to have had greater exposure to IT than had entrants to business courses, 'introduction to computing' groundwork consumed a proportion of the limited available curriculum space in IS until at least the end of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, between the 1970s and the 1990s, there was considerable growth in the proportion of matriculants continuing to post-secondary studies, and then in the numbers of mature age candidates returning to post-secondary education, at both bachelors and postgraduate levels. During the next decade, a considerable proportion of these undertook at least some IT-related study, including IS.
By the mid-to-late 1980s, a moderate collection of text-books was emerging to encapsulate the mainstream knowledge in the discipline, and facilitate its transfer to the following cohorts of students. Clarke (1987) provides a snapshot of one person's asessment of the list of books that should have adorned 'The Computing Professional's Bookshelf' at the time. [Put it on the Web?]
The orientation in Universities had been, and continues to be, toward theory and the intellectual aspects of disciplines. There was a tension between this orientation and the government's wish to produce rapidly increasing numbers of graduates, whose secondary-school performance had been lower, but who needed to emerge as graduates familiar with the new and rapidly mutating hardware and software technologies, and what to do with them.
The needs of these more practically oriented candidates were mostly serviced by the Institutes of Technology and Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs), which had existed since the previous sectoral re-organisation in the mid-1960s. The CAE sector performed a role mid-way between the abstract, education-oriented work within universities, and the concrete training provide by technical colleges. This resulted in a wide array of courses and units relevant to IS. On the other hand, staff in CAEs were not funded to perform research, and opportunities to attract research funding were limited. The CAEs accordingly provided a home to only a minority of the research-oriented academics in the IS discipline, and there was something of a cleft within the still-emergent discipline.
Commencing in 1987, the highly valuable distinction between institutions with industry-oriented mission statements and those with primarily academic orientation has been dismantled. The re-structuring of the tertiary education sector, initiated by the Labor Government in 1987, has been highly disruptive and massively wasteful. The diktat saw the disestablishment of the c. 40 CAEs and 25 other smaller elements and the amalgamation of their operations variously into the existing 19 Universities and 6 sometime Institutes of Technology, or into one of c. 15 new combines (AVCC 2004). Substantial and vital differences among the missions of the various institution-types were ignored, and even now remain confused. The previously more industry-oriented institutions came to perceive substantial roles for themselves in research, and sought better access to research funding. The sector has been in more or less continuous flux ever since, driven by a culture of interventionism by the relevant agency, most recently the Department of Education, Science & Training (DEST), and flurries of additional responsibilities have been imposed on universities, drawing resources away from teaching and research.
Among other things, the 1990s saw the death of the concept of a university as a collegial undertaking, and the imposition of managerial rationalism, and to a considerable extent of profitability and return on investment as the measures of worth of universities' senior executives. Pluralism of organisational objectives has been deeply compromised by the simplicitude of 'the bottom line'. Oxford, Bologna and Tübingen wept; the Harvard Business School exulted.
Meanwhile, the per-student funding of all institutions was progressively slashed. Institutions were forced to seek funding from external sources, predominantly by attracting 'foreign fee-paying' (FFP) students onto their campuses or into their existing distance education offerings, or by earning revenue from foreign campuses in excess of the costs involved in running them, or participating in them. Many variants of strategic manoeuvre have been attempted, many in amateurish fashion, with the result that a number of universities are in dire financial straits. Multiple experiments with strategic alliances have been tried (the Group of 8, Innovative Research Universities Australia, Open Universities Australia, New Generation Universities and Regional Universities), most with limited impact. The dislocation arising from this massive change in business models is still being felt, many institutions have worrisome exposures to the vagaries of the education export market, and the quality of teaching and the quantity of research are less than they might otherwise have been.
In 1990-92, a government review was undertaken of what were styled the 'Computing Studies and Information Sciences Disciplines'. It was popularly referred to by the name of the Committee Chair (Hudson 1992). The submissions by the ACS and the ANU utilised a graphic, prepared by the author, which sought to convey the scope of IS, and its relationship to the other relevant disciplines. See Exhibit 2. IS was depicted as occupying vital space between the technical and business disciplines, encompassing a range of applied and instrumentalist topics, and interacting closely with many other disciplines and sub-disciplines. During the intervening 15 years, the topics may have changed somewhat, but the general framework arguably still provides a reasonable representation of the relationships.
Image © Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1991
During the early years, communications within the discipline in Australia were informal and somewhat haphazard. An early step to draw the scattered individuals and groups together was the development of a Directory (Clarke 1988a, 1991, Gable & Clarke 1994 and 1996). This was merged into the worldwide online directory launched by Dave Naumann at Minnesota in 1995.
A critical initiative was the national conference, the Australian Conference in Information Systems (ACIS). The first was held at Monash in 1989, and it has run annually since then. During the first few years, the standing committee comprised Ross Jeffery, Ron Weber, Roger Clarke, Peter Weill and Igor Hawryszkiewycz. The committee was then migrated to the ICIS pattern of rotating membership involving recent, current and near-future organisers.
The mid-1990s saw maturation of the IS discipline at the international level. As the Internet was grasped as an opportunity for international communications and publication, the ISWorld mailing-list and web-site were established, both in 1994. The international Association for Information Systems (AIS) was also formed in that year. The online worldwide directory consolidated the three regional printed directories in 1995. The regional fora PACIS (from 1993), ECIS (from 1993) and AMCIS (from 1995), provided a broader geographical frame for ACIS. Australians were active contributors to PACIS, ISWorld, the AIS and the Directory project, and to ECIS and other international conferences.
Meanwhile, the national specialist journal the Australian Journal of Information Systems (AJIS) was established in 1994. Liaison among Professors and departmental heads had been emergent, and was formalised through the Australian Committee of Professors and Heads of Information Systems (ACPHIS) in 1995. An ISWorld page for Australia was established by the author in 1996. Some years later, a chapter of AIS was established (AAIS, formed 2001).
Australians have always been acutely aware of the need to be in contact with the discipline elsewhere in the world, and have been active travellers since the late 1970s, as conference contributors, participants and program committee-members, as doctoral candidates, as seminar speakers, and in short-term visiting positions.
A small number of Australians have held positions overseas for extended periods, particularly in the U.S.A., including Ted Stohr at NYU from the late 1970s, Iris Vessey at Pittsburgh and Indiana from the late 1980s, Rick Watson at Georgia from the late 1980s, and more recently Peter Weill at MIT. (All were to a considerable extent Australian-educated, and all except Iris were Australian-born).
The flow was not all one way. For example, Briton Bob Galliers spent a significant period at WAIT (now Curtin), Britons Philip Yetton and Janice Burn migrated in the early 1990s, and Michael Vitale was attracted from the US to Melbourne in 1995.
Australia has also attracted many visits from leading overseas I.S. academics. Some who made multiple and/or lengthy visits have included Frank Land (LSE, LBS), Bill Olle (London), Neils Bjorn-Andersen (Copenhagen), Leslie Willcocks (Warwick), Trevor Wood-Harper (Salford), Rudy Hirschheim (Houston), Doug Vogel (Arizona, later City Uni. of Hong Kong), Felix Hampe (Koblenz), and Michael Schrefl and Gerald Quirchmaier (both of Linz).
Given Australia's c. 0.3% of the world's population and c. 1% of World GDP, Australia tends to 'punch above its weight' in many fields. The impact of the now 700 IS academics has been noticeable, but it has been dwarfed by the energy of the U.S.A. Appendix 5 provides an analysis in support of that conclusion.
One reason for this is doubtless the slow emergence of doctoral programs in Australia. Until the 1990s, most candidates had to either manage their own preparation with support from one or more supervisors but little formal preparatory study, or to leverage as best they could off relevant (and often not-very-relevant) units of study in adjacent disciplines. Even at the end of that decade, however, Metcalfe & Kiley (2000) found it necessary to argue for PhD coursework. Frank Land provided an important perspective, which confirms my own experience, that at least during the period to 1995, all Australian PhDs in IS were expected to submit to examination by top-quality international figures. This might be explained by the high standards demanded of pioneers in an emergent discipline, or by the exquisitely Australian concept of 'cultural cringe'.
A range of institutions in Australia now offer more structured preparation for IS doctoral candidates. There might therefore be an expectation of some acceleration in Australians' contributions in the most heavily-weighted journals and ICIS. That development may be confounded, however, by the ongoing high productivity of American scholars, the higher level of journal-publication productivity of European scholars in recent years, and the explosion in doctoral programs in other countries.
The early sections of this paper have provided a largely chronological presentation of the development of the discipline. The remaining sections adopt a thematic structure, picking out aspects of the story that appear to the author to have been of particular significance.
Critical among the questions addressed in this section are where the heartland of the discipline is to be found, and why. There can be little doubt that technology has been the biggest driver of change, qualified by organisational concerns. This section enumerates and briefly describes important aspects of what IS has done, and is doing, paying particular attention to changes in flavours over the years. Inevitably, both the themes and the manner in which they are presented reflect this author's perspective on the discipline; but it has been cross-checked for completeness and structure against Culnan (1986, 1987), Barki et al. (1993), Avgerou et al. (1999), Pervan & Cecez-Kecmanovic (2001), Galliers & Whitley (2002) and Banker & Kauffman (2004).
Commencing slowly in the 1950s, accelerating through the 1960s, and exploding in the 1970s, computers were being installed, and organisations were beginning to spend considerable sums of money on them. They needed people to apply them. And the resources committed needed to be managed, in order to contribute to the needs of the organisation. Initially the opportunities were perceived in terms of business operations. Hence, throughout its history, the IS discipline in Australia has had a strong focus on application software and technology-in-use, seldom on hardware or even systems software.
Because the bare machine had to be oriented to business needs, software development was a vital focus from the emergence of IS, strongly through the 1970s, and until the late 1980s. A long-running strand of the discpline is focussed on development tools and methods (often referred to using the inappropriate term 'methodologies', even in the key reference-work, Olle et al. 1988). The software development life-cycle (SDLC) was important in the IS departments of universities, and central to the many computing and (E)DP departments in more vocationally-oriented institutions. Considerable attention has been paid to the productivity and quality aspects of software development, giving rise to specialised strands within the discipline that overlap with, and would be seen by some to have migrated across to, software engineering.
By the end of the 1980s, the 'structured era' had matured, and provided a comprehensive set of methods and associated tools that ensured completeness across the three dimensions of system designs - procedures, data model, and control structures. Concern has arisen, however, about the slowness and resource-intensiveness of development using the structured techniques. Theories emerged about 'rapid application development' (RAD). This sacrifices quality in order to gain speed and cost-savings in the development process, and hence some prefer the more descriptive title 'quick and dirty' (QAD). During the 1990s, RAD and 'object-oriented' techniques over-ran the structured techniques, and they remain the technological mainstream. During the same period, there has been a substantial de-skilling of designers and programmers as their roles have been converted into commodities. ('Everyone thinks they can design an eCommerce web-site'). These changes have resulted in a reduction in the quality of software, large numbers of fragile and undocumented applications, continued project failures and over-runs, and (particularly since the explosion of Internet-based applications) seriously low security.
Over time, the SDLC gradually matured into a systems life-cycle (SLC). This distinction reflected the importance of non-software elements. It also acknowledged the need for maintenance and enhancement, and not just of software, but also of business processes that integrated the manual, automated and intellectual elements. The area has been re-visited and re-badged from time to time, most successfully during the 'business process re-engineering' phase.
Although programming and software engineering have eased away from IS, and systems design has become a boundary-topic, systems analysis has remained of central concern. The approaches adopted within Australia have tended to moderate the hard-line, technology-driven approaches emanating primarily from the U.S.A. with the more tolerant and ambiguous notions of the U.K. school of thought. Hence texts like the Yourdon series during the 'structured' era, Booch and Rumbaugh during the later 'object-oriented' phase, and Kendall & Kendall, have lined up with and against Avison & Fitzgerald. The extreme end of the mechanistic/reductionist approach, characterised by IEEE 'requirements engineering' and championed by software engineers and computer scientists, continues to have some hold in the IS discipline. That is balanced to some extent by the penetration of participative design notions.
Data modelling has always drawn strongly from computer science, and appears to have drifted to the edge of the discipline. In recent years, it has absorbed a considerable amount from librarianship (which is one of the claimants of the ambiguous 'information science' term). This has provided a firm basis for the information management, meta-data and information architecture sub-disciplines.
During the 1960s and 1970s, and well into the 1980s, the work of most IS practitioners was focussed on support for business operations. This involved using data to represent relevant events that occur in the organisation's world, and a useful generic term for the kinds of applications was Transaction Data Processing Systems (TDPS). The first specialist newsletter was launched in 1969, the Data Base for Advances in Information Systems (usually shortened to Database). It was, and continues to be published under the auspices of the ACM Special Interest Group on Business Data Processing (SIGBDP), which changed its name to SIGMIS in 1991. It became a refereed journal in 1979 (Canning 1994). The term 'BDP' was little-used in Australia, the more mainstream expressions being Electronic Data Processing (EDP) in most of the private sector, and Automatic Data Processing (ADP) in the public sector.
Progressively an expectation arose that the information needs of managers and executives could be served. This gave rise to the Management Information Systems (MIS) movement. The term was associated with Gordon Davis and his colleagues at Minnesota, and , and much of the drive emerged from there. The concept reached Australia very quickly (Aiken 1971). The author has always considered that the key text that set the agenda was Davis (1974), entitled 'Management Information Systems: Conceptual Foundations, Structure, and Development'. In its later form, Davis & Olson (1984), I still listed it as a student reference for later-year undergraduates as late as the mid-1990s. MIS Quarterly was commenced during this phase, in 1977, run out of Minnesota, and supported by OR/MS and business organisations.
A key distinction bteween MIS and TDPS was the extraction of information from data, in particular through aggregation and exception reporting. The original concept is a natural extension of management accounting, but Davis and others quickly developed it much further. As noted earlier, 'MIS' is the common term in the U.S. for the IS discipline as a whole.
Specialist conferences emerged around that time, with the International Conference in Information Systems (ICIS) commencing in 1980. All of these activities were, and continue to be, heavily US-dominated, although many non-Americans travelled to the event, particularly from Europe and Australia, and the Conference has been more meaningfully international since about 1990, with 5 of the last 15 conferences held outside North America. Since 1983, there has been a Minnesota-run North American Directory of Faculty ('faculty' in the American sense of 'academic staff' rather than the British and Australian sense of a collegial organisational unit).
MIS was then augmented by the Decision Support Systems (DSS) movement. Banker & Kauffman (2004) claim that DSS had been emergent in the management science community since the mid-1950s. DSS can be differentiated from MIS in two main ways. Firstly, data extracted from TDPS and MIS is used in conjunction with models of current and possible future business, incorporating ideas from OR/MS. Secondly, data is used that derived from outside the organisation (such as demographics, and costs of transport and of capital) and 'out of thin air' (as models were applied to 'what if' analysis).
Exhibit 3 provides a diagrammatic representation of the relationships among these building-blocks of the IS discipline.
Image © Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1990
A further strand reflected the inter-working of multiple individuals. This was Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS) and its correlate at the tactical level, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). This area is a good example of the way in which continual technology-driven re-definition of scope has resulted in disciplinary splintering and scattered alliances. Other examples include Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), data modelling, and database management. That splintering has been a significant contributor to the inability of the IS discipline to build a substantial and stable powerbase.
Project management has long been a focus. It has been poorly performed by the IS profession, which throws doubt on the quality of the teaching and research performed the IS discipline. People in their 20s and younger have grown up with even less orientation towards planning, because of their dependency on their mobile phone to perform just-in-time scheduling for everything they do. The need for formalised instruction in project management is accordingly higher now than ever before.
Project failure and application failure have long been major concerns among executives. Mandata and the Bank of NSW's CS90 were very public examples of failure in the 1970s and 1980s. They have been a less significant focus of research work than might have been expected of a discipline closely attuned to business needs, although Chris Sauer's doctorate and book were important contributions. Much stronger focus has been needed on the balance between quality, whole-of-life cost and risk-management on the one hand, and speed and development cost on the other. But that focus has not been forthcoming, and hence high levels of project failure and application failure will continue.
Applications in the 1960s and early 1970s were conceived within functional areas (such as payroll, debtors ledger, creditors ledger, general ledger, and stores). The 1970s saw more effective interfacing of hitherto standalone applications. Then applications were progressively integrated into larger products (such as, initially, financial management information systems - FMIS, and, later, the poorly-named enterprise resource planning products - ERP). Theorists appreciated from the outset that, as the number of elements and the size of the source-code grew, there would be an exponential growth in difficulties (such as bug-content, the incidence of new bugs arising from fixes of old bugs, fragility, comprehensibility, the investment required in application-specific staff training, inflexibility, and non-adaptability). But all attempts at the modularisation of highly integrated software products have been disappointing, and organisations have built ever-larger more-or-less monolithic applications. The quality of the many large-scale applications has become a progressively larger problem, and project risk continues to be very high.
Another major technological change that had implications for the discipline's focus was the transformation from custom-built applications to packaged applications. As software became more complex, and more expensive, the focus switched from development to the customisation and integration of pre-written components, and the acquisition of packages. As indicated earlier, this transition occurred in such areas as payroll during the early 1970s, and for larger and more complex applications as late as the early-to-mid 1990s.
The management of computers, data processing, data centres, and progressively IS, had been a focus in some Schools from the outset (such as Dickson at Minnesota, and Anthony, Macfarlan and Scott Morton at Harvard). It progressively expanded into a broader IT management thread. By the late 1980s, the opportunities that communications technologies had created caused a great deal of attention to be paid to IS that crossed the boundaries of organisations, originally inter-organisational systems (IOS - 1-to-1), then multi-organisational (MOS - m-to-n) in various configurations. The combination of DSS and IOS/MOS resulted in increased capacity to contribute towards the work of the most senior executives in large organisations. From the late 1980s, the strategic information systems (SIS) strand became important. Strategic alignment became a preoccupation.
Appreciation grew that enormous harm arises from mechanistic application of technology without sufficient attention to its use by people and organisations, and to its first-order impacts on, and second-order implications for, people and organisations. This was investigated by the socio-technical movement, associated with Mumford, Checkland, Wood-Harper and Bjorn-Anderson. These have had much more substantial influence in Australia than in North America. Some specialist journals exist, such as Information Technology & People, and The Information Society, but they are somewhat marginalised.
The rationalist correlate of socio-technics and soft systems techniques has been change management. This arises partly because of the rapidity of change that is driven by technology, and exacerbated by the inevitable tendency of organisations to fall behind 'the technology curve', and then lurch into catch-up mode, with equally inevitable negative impacts on staff morale. The other reason for change management having loomed so large is the entrenched distinction between management and operational staff, and the limited involvement of staff in the analysis of requirements and the design of new systems.
Processor power has seldom been a substantial influence on the IS discipline, because data-handling is more critical. On the other hand, the continually increasing accessibility of computer-power during the last four decades has driven the demand for graduates, and hence the growth of the discipline. One change that has affected the research interests of IS academics has been the explosion in the power of 'personal computers' from their beginnings as the Apple II-with-Visicalc in the late 1970s. This resulted in a focus on individuals, the tools that they used, and the ways in which they used and didn't use them.
By the late 1980s, the convergence of computing with communications was making rapid progress. Local-area networking (LAN) and later wide-area networking changed the scope of the industry that IS served from 'the computer industry' in the 1970s to 'the information technology industry' in the 1990s. Subsequently, user satisfaction, technology use, technology adoption and impediments to adoption, have been major focal-points of IS research. The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) and the Technology Adoption Model (TAM) are examples of theories drawn into IS from reference disciplines, and much-applied.
A range of economic perspectives and tools have been applied, resulting in sub-discplines, or perhaps research domains, of the economics of IS and of IT, including the productivity of developers, of user organisations and of industry sectors; the processes of technology diffusion; and the balances between heirarchies and markets.
Over time, a wide array of IT-related services have come to be regarded as commodities as unrelated to organisations' core competencies as cleaning services, and subject to outsourcing (and in many cases subject also to subsequent re-insourcing, and the eventual discovery of the concept of 'right-sourcing').
Indications of the current structure of the body of knowledge are provided by the current ACS Accreditation Guidelines (Underwood 1997, currently undergoing revision), and current curriculum guidelines, in particular recent references such as Gorgone & Gray (2000), Gorgone et al. (2002) and Gorgone et al. (2005).
This brief outline reminds us that the scope of the discipline has broadened over the years, and has been driven largely by technological change, and to a lesser extent by organisational needs. There has been only limited evidence of leadership by the IS discipline in technological innovation, although somewhat more evidence of contributions to the management of applications of technology.
This section draws together some key aspects of the difficulties that the IS discipline in Australia has encountered, in relation to its organisational location within universities, its relationships with the IS profession and with industry more generally, its political weakness, and the resultant resource constraints.
The organisational location of IS staff has been highly varied from the outset. A large proportion of IS academics have always been in Departments dominated by other disciplines, for which IS was, and in many cases still is, perceived to fulfil a service role. The dominant disciplines have been variously hostly and hostile to the IS discipline and the staff working in it.
Almost all institutions had specialist organisational units focussed on IS by the end of the 1980s. The last institutions to create them were two widely regarded as being among the most conservative: the University of Melbourne in 1995, and the University of Sydney in 2001.
The statistical data in Exhibit 4 was extracted from the various editions of the printed Directories of Australian Academics (Clarke 1988a), of Australasian Academics (Clarke 1991), and of Asia Pacific Researchers (Gable & Clarke 1994, 1996), and the on-line directory as at 2 May 2005. The entries in all of the Direcories have been, and remain, self-reported and unaudited. There is known to be a substantial 'staleness' factor, with many individuals not amending their entries when they move, and particularly when they leave the discipline altogether. There are also known instances of under-reporting, including at least one instance of a full Professor whose chair bears the title IS, but who declares that his affinity is not with the IS community. The data has been analysed notwithstanding such issues, because to some extent the inaccuracies cancel one another out, but primarily because (in what might be regarded as a parable of the relevance versus rigour debate) that is all that is available to analyse.
Exhibit 4 shows that, by 1988, when the first Directory of Information Systems Academics was produced, the 175 individuals who could be readily identified were in 55 separate Departments in 41 educational institutions. Only 9 of those 55 Departments were recognisable as Information Systems, with a further 8 in 'Computing' or '(Electronic) Data Processing'. In a pattern that has continued to the present day, 25 of the Departments were dominated by Business disciplines (6 each of Commerce, Accounting and Business, 3 each of Management and Economics, and 1 of Administration); and Computer Science Departments dominated the remainder, with some Information Science (in the technical rather than the librarianship sense) and Mathematics.
In 2005, there appear to be about 700 people for whom IS is their dominant disciplinary affiliation, in about 100 Departments (of which only 28 are distinctly IS or similar in name), in all c. 40 institutions. The proportion of Departments containing IS that were named IS or similar grew steadily to nearly half, but has plummeted since the end of the 1990s. Two primary reasons are apparent: the 'dot.com implosion' c. 2000, and the external financial pressures on universities, which have encouraged the imposition of departmental amalgamations in the hope that this will result in cost-savings.
A significant difference from the patterns that are evident in the US has been the relatively very limited involvement of and interest in IS by Australian Graduate Schools of Business, especially until about the mid-1990s. Exceptions included mainly Phillip Yetton and for a time Chris Sauer at AGSM, and then Peter Weill and Marianne Broadbent at MGSM, and later Ernie Jordan at Macquarie.
The largest of the IS Departments still appear to be Monash, Edith Cowan, Melbourne, QUT, Uni SA and UNSW (each with 30 or more staff in one or more IS Departments) and Curtin, Deakin, Griffith, USQ and VUT (each 20-30 staff). The largest populations overall appear to be in Monash (with over 70 IS staff spread across 6-8 Departments), Melbourne University (about 60), and Edith Cowan (about 50). [CROSS-CHECK WITH OTHER 'IS in ANZ' PAPERS]
Pearcey wrote nearly two decades ago (1988, p. 125) that "The demand for people with computing expertise has always outstripped the capacity of the tertiary sector to supply it, and the situation seems unlikely to change". Based on personal experience, that was the case for at least three decades, from the late 1960s until the end of the 1990s. About 2000, two factors conspired to dramatically reduce demand. Demand had become over-heated during the 'dot.com bubble' of the mid-to-late 1990s. Investors then made the remarkable discovery that most start-ups were presaged on establishing dominant market-share in a market that not only did not exist, but would not come into existence in time; and that hence almost all start-ups would fail. This resulted in a sudden loss of investor confidence, and the bubble burst. The other factor was that offshore outsourcing had been progressively extending from data capture to programming and even detailed design work.
The publicity accompanying this very large 'market correction' was followed by substantial reductions in enrolments from domestic students - although it appears to have had a smaller impact on foreign fee-paying numbers. The staff head-count figures above are believed to reflect the position after the majority of the slashing had been undertaken. The timings of the down-sizing varied, but the quantum appears to have been fairly even across the country, with 20-30% decreases the norm. As is the way with 'the invisible hand' so beloved of economists, it appears very likely that the slump will have been an over-correction, and that there will soon be shortages in trained staff.
Few members of the IS discipline would regard it as being intellectually remote and abstract. On the contrary, it is generally regarded as a 'professional discipline'. One indicator of that is the the fact that major contributions to the foundations of IS by Ron Weber and Canadian colleague Yair Wand have been widely admired, but widely ignored.
A professional discipline needs to be clear who the professionals are that the discipline needs to educate, interact with, and conduct research for. But professional job-titles and job-definitions have changed a great deal over the four decades that the profession and industry have existed. The original roles were computer operator (now largely defunct), systems analyst (now more commonly called business analyst), systems designer (often referred to as systems analyst/designer, and sometimes business process engineer, but diminished due to the contemporary dominance of packaged software), and programmer. The senior staff-member was once called an (Electronic or Automatic) Data Processing (EDP or ADP or DP) Manager. The executive to whom that Manager reported was most commonly the Finance Director.
Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Chief Information Officers (CIOs) emerged at executive level only from the mid-to-late 1980s onwards, as the strategic significance of I.T. grew - and as the amount spent on it sky-rocketted. CIOs, who should be a natural connection-point for senior IS academics into the world of business and government, commonly have no qualifications in IS, but rather are generalised executives thrust into a particularly challenging role.
Because graduates from IS courses are intended to move into the profession, the professional body, the ACS, has long run an accredition program. Most institutions have felt the need to have their computing courses accredited by the ACS, both as a form of review, and as a means whereby graduates could be assured of qualifying for membership of the relevant professional body. For many years, the ACS's accreditation guidelines mentioned the term 'information systems', but were very heavily oriented toward 'computing' and dominated by computer science thinking (ACS 1985, 1987). During these years, many IS courses achieved accreditation only through the exercise of the discretion that the Guidelines permitted the assessors.
In Clarke & Lo (1989), the author of this paper and Bruce Lo proposed that the accreditation requirements for Computer Science and IS be distinguished, and that a range of specific topics be recognised which ensured focus on both technology and business needs. The proposal was adopted in ACS (1990), and retained in Maynard & Underwood (1996). Underwood (1997) provides a more detailed description of the 'Core Body of Knowledge for Information Technology Professionals', and reflects both the Computer Science and IS perspectives on the domain.
The tension between the technology driver and the organisational aspect was exemplified by the competition between the ACS and the Australian Institute of Systems Analysts (AISA) during the 1970s. In this case, the computing end of the spectrum won by a very wide margin. The AISA, despite its organisational orientation, never grew into an association with significant membership or influence. Nor did any of the larger business-oriented professional associations ever make a significant move to capture the business analysis profession.
The IS discipline needs to have linkages broader than the IS profession, reaching out to other business functions, and to executive levels of business and government. One form of linkage has been course committees and departmental advisory committees, which facilitate input from industry to the discipline. IS departments have also tended to draw heavily on people within industry for sessional tutors, sessional lecturers, and guest lecturers. In interview, Gerry Maynard mentioned the use by Caulfield Institute of 'Pleasant Friday Afternoons', which were used as a means of drawing DP managers in industry and government into contact with staff and students. A primary motivation for employers was the attraction of good graduates, whereas educational institutions stood to gain funding support and intellectual interaction.
The Australian Computer Users Association (ACUA) operated from 1968 onwards. Although it was a potential linkage-point for senior academics, it does not appear that it was much-used in that manner. UNSW ran a very successful 'IS Forum' from 1977 onwards, which drew in senior executives from industry and government. This was much easier than for many other institutions because Cyril Brookes had moved into academe from the top computing job in Australia (Manager - Corporate Data Processing for the country's then-largest company, BHP). Only a small number of IS departments appear to have been able to build and sustain linkages of this nature, primarily those in the more prestigious Graduate Schools of Management.
During the 1980s, there was considerable emphasis among employers on 'sandwich courses', and flagship degrees were very successful at UNSW and UTS in Sydney, [and Monash? and Swinburne? in Melbourne??] . The perception in industry was that, particularly at the more applied end of Computer Science and the technical end of IS, quality graduates were being confronted by real-world problems too late. This approach provided early exposure of students to the work environment, and leavened theory with practice.
Coursework was originally entirely the responsibility of academics. There has been a drift in recent years towards outsourcing, as resource-pressures in universities increase. A larger proportion of units of study appear to be being taught directly from text-books, chapter by chapter, with less bespoke design to fit local needs. In addition, industry-provided product-specific units have come to be accepted for credit within some universities (e.g. networking by Cisco, and .NET development by Microsoft). The eternal 'relevance versus rigour' tussle in research is mirrored by the 'training versus education' battle in the learning context.
For an extended period, there was competition for dominance over the IS discipline between Computer Science on the one hand, and business, commerce or accounting on the other. Dreyfuss (2004) chronicles the establishment of the last IS Department, at the University of Melbourne, which occurred during the period 1994-96. The Vice-Chancellor, David Penington, requested a report from a committee chaired by Peter Weill (who was a Professor in the Graduate School of Management). The Weill report stressed that there was no one standard structure for IS across the universities, with some courses very management-oriented, others highly technical. Penington opted to put the new IS Department in the Science Faculty, at least for the short term, although housed close to Computer Science. The IS degree was to have five major 'themes': information systems, organisations, information technology, analytic skills and personal competency. Later-year specialisation was to be in one of three streams: Organisations, Information Technology or Custom (Dreyfuss 2004, pp. 1-6). As it has transpired, the Department quickly developed a sufficient scale and power-base, and a decade later its Faculty location remains unchanged.
A comparison between the experiences of the Australian IS and Computer Science disciplines is instructive. In 1990, the numbers of academic staff in IS and Computer Science were comparable. But whereas Computer Science staff were concentrated in departments bearing that or a similar name, IS staff were distributed over many departments, in many cases without a senior academic post allocated to the IS discipline. The diffusion of IS staff has meant that for many years IS has lacked political clout, and even now has less political clout than other disciplines with similar total numbers. Computer Science, for example, has demanded and attracted far greater funding and support staff, and it has always been far more influential and better-recognised than IS.
One implication of the lack of political power has been a lack of resources for educational functions. In most institutions, there was a long-term struggle to gain sufficient funding and staff-positions (and then to find people with appropriate education and experience to fill them). In some contexts, the Computer Science discipline was powerful, and resisted the emergence of IS. In others, economics and management disciplines did the same. The joint majors and double-degrees that the market needed emerged very slowly, and the silo-effects of Faculties, Schools and even Departments resulted in students often having to devise ways to construct programs that suited their interests, and their perceptions of current needs.
Another problem has been the serious difficulty of acquiring sufficient resourcing to support research programs, or even individual projects of significant scale. Members of the discipline in Australia were under-trained in research, they were highly diverse in their orientations, domains of study and research techniques, and they were geographically scattered. The development of consortia to develop quality bids was difficult, and remained so well into the era of widespread email that began with the launch of AARNet in mid-1989 (Clarke 2004).
The primary source of funding, the Australian Research Grants Scheme (ARGS), later Australian Research Council (ARC), created a sub-topic of Information Systems only in the late 1990s. Until then, those few who were successful in their bids had submitted under either Computer Science or Management headings, and were generally assessed by academics with no affinity with the IS discipline.
Since 1998, IS has been recognised within the ARC RFCD Code as one of 139 disciplines and 898 subjects. The 14 most directly relevant subjects are listed in Exhibit 5. The first 13 are in the discipline of IS, within the Information, Computing and Communication Sciences cluster. The 14th is within the Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services cluster.
In 2001, after lobbying by ACPHIS and the then-new AAIS, the IS discipline gained a member of the ARC's College of Experts. Panel members from IS community since then have been Janice Burn (Edith Cowen) 2001-2003, Graeme Shanks (Monash) 2004-2005, and Michael Rosemann (QUT) 2006-.
This section addresses important questions for the future, successively 'what do we regard as appropriate domains in which to conduct research?', 'what research techniques are appropriate?', and 'what unresolved tensions remain at the end of the discipline's fourth decade?'.
Section 6 above considered the drivers and scope of the IS discipline primarily from the teaching perspective. This sub-section considers the related, but somewhat different question of what IS academics have considered to be appropriate areas of research.
Early endeavours to define the scope included Mason & Mitroff's (1973) 'program for research on MIS', Ives et al.'s (1980) 'framework for research in computer-based MIS', Galliers' 'manifesto for Australian-based research' (1987), and Jeffery & Lawrence's special issue on current research directions in IS' (1990). Reviews of the research undertaken in IS include Culnan (1986, 1987), Alavi et al. (1989), Alavi & Carlson (1992), Avgerou et al. (1999), Galliers & Whitley (2002) and Banker & Kauffman (2004). Each of them draws attention to the enormous breadth of the topics addressed.
The diversity arises in several dimensions:
A few attempts have been made to adopt the encyclopaedists' approach of ennumerating the topics that are within-scope of the IS discipline. More adventurously, a few have attempted taxonomies, in order to impose some order on the chaos. The most successful work of this kind was that by Barki et al. (1988, 1993 - it appears that the Herculean task has not been repeated since). The second paper reported that articles published in just 7 major journals in 1987-92 identified about 2,000 different keywords. Their revised classification scheme of 1993 included 1,300 keywords under 9 major and 56 minor groupings, an increase of 175 on their original 1988 version.
As Exhibit 6 shows, only about half of the Barki et al. (1993) keywords were directly concerned with the core areas of the IS discipline. One-quarter were associated with reference disciplines, and one-quarter with external drivers and constraints. The discipline could be described, kindly, as being strongly professional in its orientation, and sensitive to its environment and the needs of its clientele. Alternatively, it could be depicted more critically, as lacking confidence, being derivative, lacking in fundamentals, and driven mercilessly by its rapidly changing context.
|Drivers & Constraints|
|- Information Technology|
|- Organizational Environment|
|- External Environment|
|IS Core Research Areas|
|- IS Management|
|- IS Development & Operations|
|- IS Usage|
|- Kinds of Information Systems|
|IS Education, Research, etc.|
A later analysis examined articles published in Information & Management and MISQ from 1981 to 1997, using the Barki high-level structure. Claver et al. (2000) found that the largest concentrations of publications were IS development (13.2% of 1,121 papers), DSS (8.9%) and IS evaluation (7.8%). Avgerou et al. (1999) evaluate research foci and methods in Europe, and Galliers & Whitley (2002) analyse the papers accepted at ECIS conferences.
It appears that few studies of this nature have been conducted in Australia, but see Galliers (1987), Ridley et al. (1998), Pervan & Cecez-Kecmanovic (2001) and Pervan & Shanks (2004). Pervan & Cecez-Kecmanovic (2001) reported on the results of a survey of heads of IS groups regarding the research profiles of their groups. The heads of 21 of the targeted 36 IS groups responded. This represented over 400 of the c. 700 IS academics thought to be active in IS in Australia. The responses confirmed that Australian IS reflects the enormous breadth of scope elsewhere. Similar diversity was detected in relation to the unit of analysis of the research conducted. The "primary beneficiaries of the research" were identified as being predominantly IS professionals and managers - consistent with the notion of being a professionally-oriented discipline; although the subsequent data in Pervan & Shanks (2004) suggests a strong focus on writing for other academics as well. The average publication-count disclosed was about 2 per staff-member p.a., of which one-third were in journals and two-thirds in conferences. The research funding available was generally small, but Pervan & Shanks (2004) suggests that it is growing.
The diversity apparent in research topics is just as evident in IS academics' choices of research methods. Taxonomies of research techniques include Alavi & Carlson (1992), Palvia et al. (2003) and Clarke (2005).
The 1980s saw an extended period of intolerance and mutual distrust and dislike between groups who adopted particular research techniques. The tensions were variously methodological, philosophical and transatlantic. While differences remain, there is sufficient mutual respect and 'agreement to disagree' that little energy has been wasted during the last decade. The discipline has become a 'catholic church', in one of the positive senses of the expression.
In the IS community internationally, Claver et al. (2000) found that 'theoretical studies' (as defined by Alavi & Carlson 1992), fell from 56% to 20% between 1981-83 and 1996-97, while empirical studies rose from 44% to 80%. 'Field studies' (although in many cases mere questionnaire-based surveys) rose from 18% to 52%, while case studies rose to a high of 23% but fell back to their original 18%.
In Europe, Avgerou et al. (1999) found that the techniques used varied widely between countries, and differed from those prevalent in the U.S.A. A large proportion of German researchers focussed on technology development and testing, whereas those in many other countries conducted a great deal more qualitative analysis.
In Australia, Pervan & Cecez-Kecmanovic (2001) reported that "responses revealed dominance of a positivist paradigm, but the interpretivist paradigm was also often used". Further, "the full range of research methods are being used, from survey to action research, to technology development and testing". Pervan & Shanks (2004) suggests that interpretivist approaches have been growing in popularity. Critical theory approaches remain little-used.
This section lifts its gaze from the past and present to the future, and briefly summarises themes that, in the author's view, are currently alive, or need to be. It begins by identifying tensions that have been recurrent through the history of the discipline. In each case, a brief depiction is provided, followed by the author's view on appropriate approaches to its resolution. Attention is then turned to tensions that exist, but that have been far less discussed in the literature. Whether and how the discipline resolves them will be critical to its ability to make contributions, and, ultimately, to its survival.
The borrowing of theories from reference disciplines was essential during the early years (partly because IS is derivative from underlying disciplines and partly because there was no IS theory, and there is still rather little). The borrowing of theories continues to be a major feature of IS work. Some are tested, whereas others are 'convenience theories' whose applicability to the contexts in which they are applied is unclear at first, and in some cases stays that way for long periods. There remains a predilection for 'reference frameworks', which is a pre-theoretic construct used as a means of organising limited numbers of largely ad hoc observations or clusters of apparently interdependent variables, preparatory to conducting pilot studies.
The rate of change in the phenomena under study is sufficiently high that it can be argued that neither the paucity of established theories nor the prevalence of 'exploratory studies' and 'research frameworks' are defects: the IS discipline is in a permanent state of accumulating evidence about new and significantly changed phenomena, in order to enable existing theories to be adapted and new theories to be postulated (Clarke 2001).
Another recurrent tension has been between relevance and rigour (Keen 1980, 1991). Some conferences, particularly in applied topics, seek a balance between the needs and interests of professionals and executives, on the one hand, and the challenges of delivering reliable inferences from empirical research, on the other. But the demand for academic professionalism, particularly in major journals, has driven much of the research undertaken in IS far away from topics and treatments that are useful in business and government. In my view, there is currently an unhealthy imbalance between rigour and relevance. High-quality, rigorous research is being performed, but at the cost of delivering results of very limited relevance to the real world. If the IS discipline is to find its way, the quest for research quality must not be permitted to dominate the need for questions to be addressed, and for research methods to be designed, so as to produce results that are useful to target audiences in the real world.
Associated with the imbalance of the discipline in recent years towards 'rigour at the cost of relevance', is a tendency to view the audience for all work by IS researchers as being one another, e.g. "we ought to be especially circumspect about continuing to pursue a line of research if we conclude it is not contributing to a theory of the core of the discipline" (Weber 2003, p. ix). In no way would I want to define such work as being outside the discipline, or even to relegate it to a secondary role; but attempts to represent contribution to a theory of the core of the discipline as a defining characteristic of appropriate work in IS research must be strenuously resisted. There is a dire risk of withdrawal to the 'ivory tower', of becoming self-referential, self-serving, and focussed on 'angels on pinheads' and of disappearing into an inward spiral.
Related to this inward-lookingness has been inadequately mature debates about 'pure' versus 'applied' research. The term 'pure' is popularly used to refer to research undertaken 'because it's there'. It deals in abstract questions, endeavours to contribute at fundamental levels well beneath the superficial and ephemeral questions about particular categories of information, organisation and technology, and is not directly motivated by needs of professionals, managers or the public-at-large.
The term 'applied' is popularly used in two somewhat contradictory ways. Firstly, it often means 'not pure', in the sense that it is a term for any kind of research that deals in concrete questions and/or is motivated by real-world needs. Secondly, it means 'application of existing methods and tools to real-world needs'. It presumes that some way of working, or some technology, which has been used in some settings, will have benefits if applied in another setting as well.
What is missed in discussions that use the terms 'pure' and 'applied' is that the real-world need is not for researchers to make presumptions about what tools are to be used. To do so leads to the trap popularly described by 'a solution in search of a problem', and 'to a man with a hammer in his hand, everything looks like a nail'. What business, government, and society as a whole need from the IS discipline is instrumentalist research, that is to say goal-directed research seeking a solution to a problem, not a problem to apply a pre-written solution to. Without any intention to detract from the need for pure research and for applied research, I perceive that the need is for a professionally-relevant discipline most of whose work is concerned with instrumentalist research.
A further tension has been what I would describe as existential angst. This is evident from continuing self-questioning about the worthiness of IS as a candidate to join the pantheon of disciplines. The lack of theory, and in many areas even of frameworks within which theory can emerge, were felt keenly at the outset in the 1960s, but the nervousness persists even now. The debate is traceable to Ackoff's 1967 article 'Management Misinformation Systems' in Mngt Sci., and Dearden's 1972 paper in HBR 'MIS is a Mirage'. Fuel was added to the fire by Banville & Landry (1989), whose proposition was that the IS discipline is a 'fragmented adhocracy'.
Weber (1987) sought to bring 'the IT artifact' to the fore. More recently, Orlikowski & Iacono (2001) lamented the lack of centrality of IT in IS research. Benbasat & Zmud (2003) responded, proposing that 'the core of the IS discipline' is 'the IT artefact', which they "conceptualize ... as the application of IT to enable or support some task(s) embedded within a structure(s) that itself is embedded within a context(s)" (p. 186). Weber (2003) applauded that approach.
Lyttinen & King (2004), on the other hand, dispute the need for this 'anxiety discourse'. They argue that academic legitimacy depends not on the existence of a body of theory, but rather on "the salience of the issues studied, the production of strong results, and the maintenance of disciplinary plasticity". On this view, diversity and instability are virtues not vices.
There is a fundamental flaw in the 'desperately seeking the IT artifact' movement. Orlikowski & Iacono (2001) commenced with an assertion that many would dispute: "The field of information systems is premised on the centrality of information technology in everyday socio-economic life". Stimulated and driven though the discipline has been by technology, the discipline is concerned with 'information' applied in 'systems'. Benbasat & Zmud (2003) went even further, and proposed the removal of 'information' and even 'systems' from the core, and their replacement with the very different notion of 'the IT artefact'. The fact that most systems apply various technologies should not blind us to the central feature that technologies are only means to achieve ends: technology is a second-order question, not the disciplinary core.
Benbasat & Zmud (2003) compound the felony by envisioning the artefact as "hardware/software design" and "structures, routines" (p. 186). By adopting the narrow technology-as-thing notion, they overlook, or perhaps intentionally exclude, procedures unsupported by hard technology. At the very least, the 'IT artifact' would need to be clearly defined and articulated so as to reflect the use of any tool, nomatter how minimal, hence encompassing the manilla folder, the hand, the pen, human vision, the human voice, the ability to walk in order to change the point of physical view, the ability to look and to focus, and the ability to choose to use hand and voice to effect change in the real world.
But even the broadest notion of an 'IT artifact' would still be too restrictive a scope definition for the discipline. The frame offered by Benbasat & Zmud (2003, p. 187) does extend to 'Usage' and 'Impact', and hence, in their model, technology-in-use is within the scope of the IS discipline. But the focus on the intersection of technology and organisations relegates individuals to the margin, as staff-members, users and usees. It is extremely difficult to squeeze into this mechanistic conception of IS such things as values, culture, and competition among values and among cultures. Any consideration of ethics would clearly be banished from the field, as a metaphysical distraction.
Since the explosion of what I call extra-organisational systems (Clarke 1992a), particularly since the availability of the Internet, the discipline's scope must be inclusive of individuals as people, not just as factors of production or factors of consumption, and of groups of people, and of societies. In my view, the 'IT artefact' movement seriously mis-conceives the discipline's core and scope. We must return to the fundamentals of 'information, and of 'system' (Mason 2005). We need to place at 'the core of the discipline' the notions of 'information' and 'system'. We need to put 'IT' in its proper place, as a component of systems, and as a facilitator of and barrier to the functioning of systems.
A final issue that I believe to be of serious concern relates to the nature of the outcomes that IS researchers seek. Research outcomes can be of a variety of forms:
IS limits itself to 'exploratory' and 'descriptive' outcomes when it needs to, but it strongly prefers to achieve 'explanatory' and if possible 'predictive' research outcomes. On the other hand, IS shies away from 'normative', seldom even venturing into the weak, Machiavellian sense of 'if the prince wishes to achieve <x>, then he is advised to do <y>', and almost never into strong normative, policy-oriented work. We have ceded policy-relevant research to other, less timid disciplines. We have lacked the confidence to develop a fully normative component to the discipline, to a considerable extent because we have over-valued rigour, and willingly compromised relevance in order to enable ourselves to achieve it.
A normative component to the IS discipline would declare needs associated with human values, and consider system features that assist in and that militate against the satisfaction of those needs. In part, it would evaluate technologies and technologies-in-use against the needs and values, search for alternative approaches that avoid or ameliorate problems, and even put forward recommendations (Clarke 1997).
This proposition will offend purists, who consider such work to lack 'objectivity'. But we have to consider the corollary of the assumption that information technology is now enormously powerful: we must recognise our individual and collective responsibility to identify and draw attention to the negative impacts and implications of what we're doing, and to actively seek ways to exploit opportunities without exploiting and harming people (Clarke 1988b).
The IS discipline, as practised by the majority of academics (and hence as implicitly defined by them), has been drawing away from the high value placed on individualism during the post-Renaissance period. The IS discipline is becoming a tool of large organisations, whether of the profit-oriented private sector, of the State, or of the rapidly-emergent 'public-private partnerships'. (In April 2006, Eldon Li, a full professor in a US university, in a contribution to an email discussion on the ISWorld List, referred to the "mission" of the IS discipline as being "to turn information technologies into business values". The very language chosen to express the proposition represents complete - and apparently willing - subjugation of the academic endeavour to the needs of the rich and powerful).
IS is willingly subsuming individuals into larger combines, and willingly assuming that individuals are and should be subject to the dictates of large organisations. The spectre looms of the loss of western European intellectual history, of the resurgence of the idea that individuals are mass cannon-fodder, and of the widespread adoption of East Asian / Confucian notions of submission by the individual not just to the greater good, but to the presumption that whoever wields the power knows best.
In my view, IS researchers who willingly participate in such debasement of the IS discipline are guilty of the same form of abjectly immoral behaviour as nuclear scientists of the early twentieth century. The so-called 'technological imperative' is a myth and convenient excuse. At this stage, human society has the choice to apply technologies or not, and to form technologies as they want them. As the power and embedment of technology grows, if IS academics fail to adopt a leadership role and factor the impacts and implications of technology into their research, human society will progressively lose that choice.
The purpose of this paper has been to provide a chronicle of the early years of the IS discipline in Australia, in the process identifying important themes. It is arguably inappropriate in a review paper of this nature to 'draw conclusions'. This section accordingly focusses on key questions that confront the discipline early in the 21st century.
The first cluster of questions relate to the discipline's intellectual survival. Is IS really a discipline? And does it matter if it isn't? Is there a core? Is it so heavily dependent on technology and management fashion that it can never have the stable core necessary for a recognised discipline? Put another way, are IS academics destined to wander forever, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet, backstage bit-actors to host-discipline leads? Is IS not a discipline, but merely a research domain that needs to be viewed through the lenses of a variety of genuine disciplines? Has its value been ephemeral? Does it need to be absorbed by broader disciplines either side of it? Does it need to continue to exist much as it does now, but with less energy wasted on existential angst?
In my view, we need to be far less nervous, and far more positive about the quality of our work; to be far less internally-focussed, and far more outward-looking and professionally-oriented; to be far less interested in 'the IT artefact', and far more committed to 'information' and 'systems' as the once and future core of the IS discipline; to be far less mechanistic in our outlook, and far more humanistic; and to be far less servile to corporations and the State, and far more socially responsible.
If IS is a discpline with a long-term future, then further questions arise. In interview, Frank Land said that "We're fragmenting intellectually and methodologically, and our language is becoming confused, because words are increasingly being used in method-specific senses". He sees this as leading to mistaken inferencing and perhaps an outright inability to comprehend what someone from a different intellectual or methodological school of thought is trying to say. I see this as being a consequence of the dominance of rigour over relevance, and the resultant research-technique-driven selection of research questions and even research domains.
If the discipline is intellectually worthy and sound, there remains the issue of economic survival. Can a still relatively young and politically weak discipline survive in the face of massively reduced government funding for institutions, and new business models exposed to the vagaries of market-conditions? The market over-reacted to the dot.com implosion, as markets do, and local demand for IT-qualified graduates may well exceed supply in the near future. But the implosion in enrolments confirmed the belief among university administrators that IS is ephemeral and/or unimportant. Will the recovery come soon enough and forcefully enough to ensure that IS survives as a distinct discipline? Political survival depends on many factors, but adjustment of the scope of the IS discipline, and maturation of its orientation, as argued for in this paper, would deliver intellectual integrity, which would certainly help.
The first four decades of the IS discipline in Australia saw progress and growth achieved, but in a context of multi-dimensional change, uncertainty and adversity. The next decade promises more of the last three, but quite possibly more of the first two as well.
ABS (2005) 'Informing a Nation: the Evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Australian Bureau of Statistics, Cat. 1382.0, November 2005
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Guy Gable provided the stimulus for this paper, and he, Bob Smyth and other members of the 'IS in ANZ' project team provided important input to the work.
The paper has benefited greatly from interviews with the following key players in IS in Australia, listed in alphabetical order: Cyril Brookes, Bill Caelli, Frank Land, Stewart Leech, Gerry Maynard, Graham Pervan, and Ron Weber. Several other senior members of the discipline made important contributions, including Dick Mason. In relation to the PIT scheme, my thanks to Gerry Maynard, John Austin, John Growder, Rob Thomsett, Jonathan Palmer and Kerry Webb.
Responsibility for the errors, the omissions, the unfortunate mis-phrasings, and the judgementally impregnated expressions, rests with the author. The electronic version of the 'paper' is intended to be a living document for a while at least, and suggestions for improvement of all kinds should be submitted to the author. It is intended that this paper and supporting documents be mirrored in on the AAIS and other appropriate sites.
Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, Visiting Professor in the Baker & McKenzie Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.
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