The Information Systems Academic Field: A Crisis in the Making

September 1st, 2010 by under For Information Systems Academics. No Comments.

The Information Systems academic field began in the late 1960s when faculty in business schools realized that technology was likely to change organizations in many different ways.  Computer scientists were interested in computers, but not necessarily their use in organizations nor their impact on those who worked with these machines.

In those early days a firm could choose from a half-dozen mainframe vendors who offered computers with different computational power.  These machines belonged to a central department where personnel designed and programmed applications of the mainframes.  These departments developed reputations as being unresponsive for taking a long time to develop systems.

In 1981 IBM announced its PC, and individual users flocked to devices that gave them computational power on their desktops.  They were free from the central technology group.  Soon, however, these users realized they needed the data from mainframe systems, and so it became important to network the computers in an organization.

When the Internet became available for profit-making use in 1995, we saw the confluence of an international network, huge data stores, and powerful computational abilities.  The world has not been the same since as we discuss in remarks about transformational technologies.

The academic IS field has followed along with trends in the industry, looking at topics like the impact of technology, the value from investing in IT, technology acceptance, data bases, expert systems, electronic commerce and Web 2.0.  This research has grown more esoteric and narrow every year, and I would argue more boring with each passing study.  A faculty member once suggested the following question for a doctoral exam:  “What would be the result of destroying all the IS research ever done?”  We did not include that question because we feared what the results would be.  In more pessimistic moments I think my answer would be “none.”

Maybe IS is an example of what happens in academic research; it becomes more narrow and less relevant to people outside the academy.  But it seems to me that other business disciplines have had an impact on practice.  Certainly financial research has influenced Wall Street.  I believe it is responsible for indexed funds and for better or worse, many of the derivative products out there.  Some companies appear to use the results of academic research in marketing, and certainly management scholars have influenced the practice of management.

What should the IS field do?  I would like to see us study and report on important events in the world that are related to information technology.  Such studies might involve insightful interpretations of how one or a group of firms implemented a new technology, for example physicians groups adopting electronic medical records.  While our tradition in the field has been to gather data and analyze it, we may find it equally valuable to observe and report on the major issues affecting the success of an implementation effort.

Unfortunately our field, mainly the editors and reviewers for our journals, view individual interpretation with great skepticism.  Researchers who do what is called qualitative research are still pressured to count the occurrences of the themes they present.  Much research in the humanities involves faculty who gather information from many sources, analyze it and present their interpretation.  The IS field could benefit greatly from such an approach.

Most of our research involves data, and that means everything is old by the time it is published.  Data are history, and add to that the time to analyze it, write a paper, and the long publication cycle what finally appears may reflect data that are years old.   How does this work help decision makers who are concerned about the future?  I would like to see every paper in our leading journals have a section on speculation that goes beyond the historical data presented.

We also have the knowledge and insight to study important topics related to technology policy for the U.S. and the world.  How should the U.S. develop its broadband capabilities?  How can we assure the privacy of medical information in a national health information network and in local repositories of electronic medical records?  Should the U.S. government continue its policy of telecom regulation known as “net neutrality?”

We need to conduct academic research to get tenure, but to become relevant to the world and have a positive impact, we need to help decision makers.  Talking only to ourselves means no one else is listening, and there is no constituency to support out continued existence as an academic field.