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Steven Alter University of San Francisco email@example.com
This paper was submitted to the 1995 MIS Quarterly special issue on MIS education, but was not accepted.
This method implies that the natural unit of analysis for business professionals is the business process. The purpose of their analysis should be to gain insight about a system and to collaborate effectively with the IS staff. information requirements determination. IS design.How should business professionals analyze information systems for themselves? ABSTRACT: Introductory courses in information systems for business majors are often unpopular and frustrating to teach. vendors. E101. keywords: systems analysis. Their analysis and design efforts should be directed toward gaining insight about the systems they have and the systems they really want. and colleagues. not the information system. Business professionals should want an integrated approach they can internalize and use effectively for analyzing and designing systems from a personal. FC. 2) performance. IA01 The current difficulties with introductory IS courses stem from many causes. rather than to do the work of IS professionals creating and documenting a rigorous hardware and software specification. The WCA (work centered analysis) method starts with a framework for creating a system snapshot based on six elements: 1) the business process. FB03. rather than toward creating rigorous technical specifications. Too many students don’t see the 3 . one of which is the lack of genuinely helpful concepts and frameworks typical business professionals can use to analyze and design systems for themselves. 2) the products and/or services the business process generates. This paper discusses an attempt to develop a systems analysis method for business professionals. The excuse that it takes a long time for emerging fields to become coherent doesn’t help us deal with our current problems in business schools. and 5) risks. Gaining insight should help them develop or acquire their own systems in simple situations and should aid communication with their business colleagues and the IS staff and vendors who do the technical work of building and maintaining the systems. 3) the internal or external customers of the business process. IS development methods and tools. IS evaluation. 3) infrastructure. partially because they cover an excess of vocabulary and technical details but miss what the audience really wants (or should want). FB04. Implications for teaching and research are discussed. and the 4) participants. and 6) technology involved in the business process. 5) information. business process. 4) context. The lack of genuinely useful core concepts is just as evident in detailladen basic textbooks as in overly abstract research papers. The WCA method organizes a business professional’s analysis and (re)design of a system by using this framework from five distinct perspectives: 1) architecture. DD0402. business-oriented viewpoint. IS education ISRL categories: AH05.
or designing a new system. This paper describes an applied research project aimed at developing a method typical business professionals could use to analyze and design information systems from their own personal viewpoint. They may be system users. not information. the paper summarizes the method that was developed along with direct and indirect feedback about its effectiveness in analyzing real world systems. I delivered 22 iterations of a talk whose true goal dawned on me about half way through the effort: Assume that I have one hour to give a presentation to a small group of business professionals who will soon attend a meeting about a particular system in their business. and empowerment. evaluating a proposal from a software vendor.point of much of what we teach and many of our colleagues in other fields no longer see mystery in the computers they use every day. 2) I cannot know what type of system they will be discussing. process reengineering. Is there anything I could say that would probably be useful even with these unreasonable ground rules? If so. After describing the search for basic ideas about information systems. Like many business professionals they understand their own business context. I have to live with three unreasonable ground rules: 1) I cannot know what job or business background the people have. word processors. Although it is easy to find fault with the students. SEARCHING FOR THE BASIC IDEAS Based on a combination of academic and business experience I have had a long term concern about difficulties students in introductory IS courses have in writing papers about real world systems. a computer company. 3) I cannot know the agenda of their meeting. programmers. top managers. Its central concern is not information technology. Unfortunately. it is also possible that their omissions and confusions indicate something is missing from what is being taught. it is the work being performed. This method was developed over several years through numerous iterations of presentations and write-ups used by MBA and EMBA students to understand real systems in their businesses. It may be a telephone voice mail system. but may have never received explicit training about systems. Visiting universities and several research institutions. or anyone else who cares about the system. an airline. An opportunity to give a series of guest lectures provided a unique way to work on this issue. have some understanding of technology through the use of spreadsheets. and certainly not management. The method is based on business ideas such as TQM. a customer billing system. not the user. The final sections discuss implications for teaching and research. or any other type of firm. I need to give a one-hour presentation that will probably help them. Rather. They may be reviewing an existing system. I would have found basic 4 . in other words. or other computer applications. or an information system for managers. the business process the information system supports. They may be working for a grocery store. not the user organization.
its use might help avoid some of the problems Davidson (1993) observed in JAD sessions that miss a true dialogue because they are run by the IS staff to obtain the information the IS staff needs. 5 . The next two sections summarize the latest version of the WCA method and present some of the ideas and observations that led to its current form. and then goes into more depth by looking at the current and proposed system from five perspectives. was presented to the MBA and EMBA students in a more detailed write-up. They used it while writing papers about systems in their businesses and later provided written feedback about their personal reactions to the usefulness of the approach. 199X). The WCA method is designed to help business professionals gain insight about a system. equipment. it is also potentially valuable for IS professionals as a way to communicate more effectively with users and managers. This research on the basic IS ideas was done using an industrial research model rather than an academic research model. When I believed the ideas were reasonably coherent after 22 iterations of the talk during 1992-93. The WCA method is based on the idea that business professionals can and should analyze business systems by focusing on the work done by the system. and they would help in seeing where our field is going. These ideas would be the basis for the introductory course. THE WCA METHOD: USING A FRAMEWORK TO LOOK AT WORK FROM MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES The WCA method consists of a framework for summarizing a system and general guidelines for an analysis and design process using the framework from five perspectives. I produced and distributed several iterations of a 30-35 page write-up to MBA and executive MBA students during 1993-94. The goal was not to create a trail of experimental data that could be analyzed carefully. The method has now stabilized enough that it can be tested in a traditional experimental approach such as the one used by Boland (1978) in his study of alternatives for generating system design ideas. and must be supplemented by other techniques during a system development process. Work is the application of human and physical resources such as people. The “work centered analysis” (WCA) method uses a six-element framework for creating a one-page system snapshot. For example. Although designed for use by business professionals. It does not attempt to be a rigorous requirements analysis or system methodology. The final section of the paper discusses implications related to the introductory IS course and other aspects of the IS field. and has been explained in additional layers of depth elsewhere (publication by author. The result of the research to date is a method business professionals can use to gain a quick initial understanding of specific systems in their business environment. but rather to develop a useful method as rapidly as possible. time.ideas business professionals can understand and internalize to gain insight about their systems. It is summarized here.
the information the business process uses or creates. The two-way links also imply that a change in any area may result in changes in any of the other areas. The box surrounding business process. By making more information accessible. which is almost always the case. the new technology could permit business process changes which in turn affect the skills required of participants and the quality of the product received by the customer. part of the system is an information system. The work system’s output is the product. For example. availability of more powerful technology could affect every other element of the framework. and alignment.effort. information. 6 . All of the links in the framework are two-way. Any imbalance in the system usually implies a need for change. which is used by its customers. implying that all the elements should be in balance. the participants in the business process. empowerment. Consistent with the need to emphasize business issues such as process improvement. Although initially developed to help understand applications of information technology. Work occurs only if product and/or service outputs are generated for use by internal or external customers. If processing information plays any role in performing the work. and the technology the business process uses. the participants should fit the business process and the product should fit the expectations of the customers. Including the product and customer in the picture even though they are not part of the system reflects the TQM notion that the customer is the ultimate judge of quality. the framework consists of six linked elements: the internal or external customers of the business process. participants. and information technology indicates that those four elements are the system performing the work. this framework can be used to think about any business process or information system. and money to produce outputs used by internal or external customers. customer focus. For example. Framework for thinking about systems in business Figure 1 shows a general framework for thinking about systems in business by focusing on the work being done. the products (and/or services) generated by the business process. the steps in the business process.
Figure 1: Framework for thinking about systems in business. There is no link between technology and participants because the framework was designed primarily for thinking about business processes in which information technology is the main technology being considered. the business process should change. 7 . Even though certain forms of information technology may affect participants directly in some ways (such as by requiring computer related skills or by giving them eyestrain). such as x-rays or potentially harmful chemicals. practices. or replacement or the business process must change. This implies that the business process is the central focus for summarizing a system. If the participants cannot perform as required. This book emphasizes ways it can be used for analyzing business processes and the information systems that support them. a direct link between technology and participants might be added to the framework. either they must change through training. the main impacts on participants typically result from the nature of the business process rather than the technology per se. motivation. If the customer is unhappy with the product. plans participants information technology Except for the arrow connecting customer and product. This framework consisting of six linked elements can be used for thinking about any system in business. customers products business process • impacts of other business processes? • organizational policies. all the arrows in the diagram are attached to the business process. In situations involving other types of technologies.
the business process and what it produces. The customers of the process include shoppers (who receive receipts for their purchases) and suppliers (who receive replenishment orders). Any such diagram is a simplification of reality providing only a brief snapshot and leaving out many features essential for understanding the situation. Finally. the product. The product of the business process includes receipts for shoppers and availability of inventory and sales data. In addition. Too often. But it is useful because it identifies six elements a business professional can start learning about in just a few minutes. The basic approach is to collect sales data during customer checkout and transmit the data to buyers and suppliers daily. Business professionals unable to do this don’t understand the system well enough to start an analysis. analyzing sales data. and reordering inventory. the summary can be used to start a dialogue since others in the firm might draw the summary differently. The major steps in the business process include identifying items sold to consumers.Figure 2 is an example of a system snapshot based on the framework. the business process. providing receipts to consumers. business professionals mislead themselves by focusing on technology and information rather than what matters most to them. This particular example summarizes Wal-Mart’s inventory replenishment system based on brief descriptions in magazine articles. and the participants. 8 . the framework encourages thinking about the system using TQM focal points including the customer. resulting in low inventory levels without reducing service and coordination with suppliers. By highlighting disagreements the effort to produce an agreed upon version of Figure 2 would be a useful starting point when collaborating with others to analyze or design a system.
plans participants • checkout clerks • employees who control and order inventory information • detailed listing of each shopper's purchases • price.coordination with suppliers major steps: • identify items sold • provide receipts • analyze sales data • reorder inventory business process basic approach: •• collect sales otherduring impacts of data customer checkout business processes? ••transmit data to buyers and organizational policies. infrastructure. the way the 9 . 1) The architecture perspective looks at how the current or proposed system operates mechanically by summarizing its components. context. inventory level.low inventory levels without reduced service .Figure 2: Snapshot of Wal-Mart’s inventory system The framework is used here to summarize Wal-Mart’s system for tracking and reordering inventory. performance. the perspectives include architecture. If a summary of this type is successful it provides a feeling for the things a business professional should think about even though it leaves out most of the details in the system. permitting: . and risks. and daily sales for each product technology • bar code scanners • computers • telecommunications equipment Five perspectives for thinking about a system The WCA method uses the framework to look at work from the multiple perspectives necessary for understanding any existing or proposed system in business. suppliers daily practices. As summarized in Table 1. customers • shoppers • suppliers products • receipts for shoppers • availability of current inventory and sales data.
Table 1: Issues raised by five perspectives for understanding an existing or proposed system in business Five perspectives each raise a set of questions that should be considered when analyzing a system from a business professional’s perspective. Architecture is dealt with in two ways. First. and conformance to standards or regulations. flexibility. flow charts. telephone systems. or can cause defects in the work product ? • What are the likely responses to these problems? 2) The performance perspective uses business terms to describe how well the system or its components operate. Infrastructure is typically not under control of the systems it serves. whereas organizational architecture is a statement of how the people and departments are organized. responsiveness. productivity. cycle time. attention to planning and control within the process. and the way the components operate together. 10 . In addition. reliability. perspective key issues Architecture • What are the components of the system that produces the work and uses the work product? • How are the components linked? • How do the components operate together? Performance • How well do the components operate individually? • How well does the system operate? (How well is the work performed?) • How well should the system operate? Infrastructure • What technical and human infrastructure does the work rely upon? • In what ways does infrastructure present opportunities or obstacles? Context • What are the impacts of the organizational and technical context? • In what ways does the context present opportunities or obstacles? Risks • What foreseeable things can prevent the work from happening. One of the TQM movement’s main tenets is that many businesses need better process measurement to guide process improvement. information.components are linked. reliance on computers. and organizations. product performance can be measured in terms of price. and provision for recovery from errors and malfunctions. it can be described conceptually using ideas such as degree of structure. Examining infrastructure often reveals constraints limiting the changes that can occur. The human infrastructure for these systems is the support staff that keeps them operating effectively. as is often done using data flow diagrams. For example. but may also reveal untapped opportunities to use available resources. technology. degree of integration. consistency. can make the work inefficient. information architecture is a statement of how information is organized within a system. yet plays an essential role in those systems. The term architecture applies equally to processes. it can be documented using diagrams showing sets of linked components. quality. For information systems. and security. For example. 3) The infrastructure perspective describes the resources the system depends upon and shares with other systems. the technical infrastructure typically includes computer networks. whereas process performance can be measured in terms of capacity. range of involvement. or other diagramming methods. and software for building and operating these systems.
and data theft. but may also create obstacles. risks related to information include data errors. competitive and regulatory issues external to the firm. General categories of risks can be identified for each of the elements of the framework. 5) The risks perspective looks at foreseeable events whose occurrence could cause system degradation or failure. including nonparticipating stakeholders.4) The context perspective describes the organizational and technical realm within which the current or proposed system operates. For example. The steps are as follows: 11 . An analysis and design process Figure 3 illustrates the steps in the systems analysis process and shows how the framework and perspectives are used. and culture. and implementation issues related to the organization’s policies. data fraud. The context may create incentives and even urgency for change. resources outside of the system. practices. Since every business system has some risks any effort to build or change a system should include identifying foreseeable risks and deciding on either countermeasures or acceptance of the risks.
and what risks affect it. pract i ces.Figure 3: Steps in systems analysis for business professionals Systems analysis iterates between defining system scope. pl ans • i mpact s of ot her busi ness processes? • organi zat i onal pol i ci es. constraints. The final step is selecting among alternatives based on tradeoffs. and implementation issues. practi ces. uncertainties. describing the system. and risks. pl ans • i mpacts of ot her busi ness processes? • organi zat i onal pol i ci es. pl ans describe the current situation design potential improvements • i mpact s of ot her busi ness processes? • organi zat i onal pol i ci es. practi ces. determine scope and purpose of the analysis • i mpacts of ot her busi ness processes? • organi zat i onal pol i ci es. what context it operates in. what infrastructure it relies upon. context. pl ans • architecture • performance • infrastructure • context • risks • i mpact s of ot her busi ness processes? • organi zati onal pol i ci es. and proposing improvements. performance. The description and improvement stages each use the same five perspectives: architecture. how well it operates. practi ces. decision criteria. The scope of the problem is defined primarily by the scope of the business processes included in the analysis. 12 . Look at each element of the framework within all five perspectives. infrastructure. pract i ces. 2) Describe the current situation: Describe the existing system from five perspectives: how it operates. pl ans • architecture • performance • infrastructure • context • risks • tradeoffs • constraints • uncertainties • decision criteria • implementation select among alternatives 1) Determine the scope and purpose of the analysis: Decide what problem is being solved.
so be it. If some important ideas involve organizational or political issues too difficult to discuss with certain individuals. Starting by analyzing the current situation carefully might encourage taking certain things for granted. An additional objection might be that the process described in Figure 3 is too cumbersome and involves too many steps. Describe potential changes in architecture and estimate how they will be reflected in the other perspectives. infrastructure. namely. First. Figure 3 shows that each systems analysis step can be performed using the six-element framework. and risks . 4) Select among alternatives: Use the understanding developed through the first three steps to decide what to do. uncertainties. Even though it might seem obvious that systems analysis and design should involve something like the steps in Figure 3. five times each to look at the current system and potential improvements from the five perspectives. Its purpose is to provide an organized approach for thinking about systems. performance. once for the purpose and scope. Specifically. and feasibility of implementation in the organization. architectural changes in any element usually call for corresponding changes elsewhere. and then to examine the overall system. two important objections should be considered. Make the decision considering issues such as tradeoffs. The WCA method contains many ideas that can be applied when thinking about any system in business. it is reasonable to ask whether studying the current situation before proposing potential improvements could be counterproductive in some cases. the steps can be used to examine each subsystem separately. consistent with the way people typically identify a problem they want to think about and then redefine the problem after gathering information that helps them understand it. but it is definitely not either a cookbook anyone can follow mindlessly or a strait jacket that forces adherence to a procedure. If the goal is radical change. context. If some ideas do not resonate for a particular situation.3) Design potential improvements: Suggest ways of changing one or more elements to improve the system’s performance. starting with general objectives and a blank sheet of paper might be more appropriate even though detailed system design and implementation will require careful attention to the current system. thereby making it less likely that radical. any business professional should be able to use the WCA method for thinking about business processes and the information systems that support them. At least the business professional doing the analysis will have been more likely to consider these points by following an organized approach. 13 . Because the six elements in the framework are linked. constraints. The issues raised are inescapable and ought to be considered. Note that the steps in Figure 3 seem to apply to a single system or business process. Applying a single framework from many perspectives helps keep the analysis coherent and helps avoid excessive attention to tangential issues. regardless of how they are combined or reported in a written document or oral presentation. they should be skipped. decision criteria. it seems to ask the business professional to look at the same six elements eleven different times. Inclusion of all these considerations does not mean that business professionals need to produce overlapping documentation eleven different times. It also shows that the process is iterative. Ideally. If the situation being analyzed contains several major subsystems. new ideas will emerge.
leading to the conclusion that the business process was the most useful unit of analysis. The limitation in regard to amorphous activities also raises a caution flag. • Work design and sociotechnical systems analysis encouraged considering both the technical system (techniques for doing work) and the social system (people and relationships between people). they are guidelines for encouraging coverage of issues business people understand and care about. it is not a formula or cookbook. TQM. finance. problem solving models.” For example. and is not as effective when applied to broad. It raised issues about what really was the system. Initial ideas from business and academic sources The initial presentation that evolved into the WCA method was a loose combination of ideas from general systems theory. Like any framework or general problem solving approach. sociotechnical systems analysis. environment. it is designed to help business professionals think about different facets of a system so that their interactions with other business professionals and with system builders will be more effective. Although designed to be very general. selection) rather than just a set of concepts for describing systems. and business process re-engineering. while it can help in thinking about a telephone system or even about how a computer operates internally. however. • General systems theory provided an initial vocabulary for thinking about systems. Instead. it is more useful in thinking about a sales. The guidelines presented here are not meant as a dogmatic statement of exactly how systems must be analyzed. such as subsystem. But it seemed too general and not prescriptive enough in relation to information systems to provide the direction typical business professionals require in analyzing information systems. output. Using it effectively requires judgment. division of labor. SOURCES OF IDEAS The WCA method was developed through many iterations starting with ideas from the general business environment and academic literature and evolving based on pitfalls observed in student papers and on direct feedback from students. But these models were again too general to be the primary basis of a method for analyzing information systems. amorphous activities such as “management” or “communication. the WCA method has important limitations. design. description. this method makes no attempt to create a rigorous specification of a desired system. input. Rather. since information systems directed at poorly defined activities are often ineffective due to lack of user understanding about how to gain benefits from using them. or production process that occurs over time. It applies most directly to business processes containing identifiable steps occurring over time and producing a recognizable output. • General problem solving models such as Simon’s led to the inclusion of the problem solving process in Figure 3 (scope.Unlike analysis and design methods for system builders. But these ideas seemed to provide too little guidance about describing and 14 .
or the business process. recognizing that customers evaluate the outputs of a process.evaluating system elements. The current form of the WCA method was developed to help alleviate some of the pitfalls these students encountered. These ideas had the most direct effect on the WCA method as it evolved. The the product and the looking at the internal cost of a perspectives provide terms internal view of the production without looking at the for looking at each process total life cycle price paid by the separately. 1994. including the organization and the work that is done. and recognizing the need for performance measurement and genuine involvement by process participants. But system life cycle models seemed more involved with controlling projects and creating documentation rather than with helping business professionals think about information systems. Table 3: Pitfalls encountered in attempts to use earlier versions of the framework The common pitfalls listed here led to superficial systems analysis when evening MBA students used earlier versions of the WCA method.) • Total quality management provided ideas such as focusing separately on products and processes. internal or external customer difficulty defining the difficulty deciding whether the The framework separates the 15 . and business processes failure to distinguish looking at quality as an internal The framework includes the between the business process issue rather than customer. and customer’s view of as a customer-related issue. But its insistence on radical change made it inappropriate as a general approach for analyzing information systems. Pitfalls revealed in papers by MBA and EMBA students The WCA method evolved further based on what I identified as confusions and omissions in papers written by evening MBA and EMBA students about systems in their businesses. Common pitfalls are listed in Table 3 along with earlier modifications of the WCA method to reduce the likelihood the same problems would arise again in using later versions. (For references see Hirschheim and Klein. the product. which was then modified to help avoid these pitfalls. pitfall example related feature in the framework or perspectives difficulty talking about desktop publishing The framework distinguishes distinguishing software as though it were the between the business between software entire document production process process and the technology. • Business process re-engineering reinforced the need to focus on the process and showed the desirability of starting the analysis from the premise that anything can change. • The system development life cycle provided a rigorous process including identifying what specific information is used by specific business processes.
A separate context perspective is included. Written feedback from EMBA students As the first of two major projects in the course. students in an Executive MBA class in the Spring of 1994 wrote individual papers responding to the following assignment: “Use the systems analysis guide and other ideas we cover in class to analyze an information system in your organization. A separate performance perspective is included to encourage consideration of these issues. Explanations of the framework always say it is not a cookbook or fill-in-theblanks approach. more (or less) integrated. the students filled out a feedback form asking for a 1 (not 16 . The system summary includes separate entries for summarizing the major steps and for describing the basic approach. once for a guide scope. or saying a business process was fast but not specifying how long it actually took tendency to ignore talking about implementation issues infrastructure issues without talking about the role of the support staff tendency to ignore suggestions about building a system political and using object-oriented programming technical context without considering organizational issues and technical compatibility tendency to assume talking about computerized systems systems will work as uncritically without ever mentioning planned the things that could go wrong temptation to use the writing out the framework in detail approach as a so many times that it becomes cookbook rather than tedious (for example. A separate infrastructure perspective is included. The architecture perspective separates entries for identifying the steps from other entries for discussing the business process conceptually.boundaries of the system. over-emphasis on small architectural details difficulty discussing architecture conceptually system is the entire sales process or just the part of the sales process that involves determining customer requirements explaining the process of generating government mandated reports as many tiny steps instead of several steps each of which could be subdivided if necessary avoiding conceptual issues such as whether the overall process should be more (or less) structured. and five times for proposing improvements).” After the papers were turned in and 10 were presented orally by volunteers who thought their situations would be especially interesting to other class members. Since the purpose of the course is to give you ideas for thinking about information systems. product from the process. A separate risk perspective is included. part of your grade will be based the degree to which the paper demonstrates your understanding of these ideas. and more (or less) flexible avoidance of topics related to measurement and evaluation saying the information was adequate but not discussing the error rate. five times for description. and puts a box around the four elements within the system.
The comments were discussed openly in class. The key issue in this regard is that anyone using any systems analysis method simply has to use judgment in deciding how much to say. To encourage everyone filled out the form thoughtfully. The revision attempted to clarify some terminology (such as changing “description & evaluation” to “performance”) and to make the use of the five perspectives seem less cumbersome. evaluation of the framework evaluation of the FMP method 12 10 10 8 8 6 number of responses number of responses 6 4 4 2 2 0 0 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 rating (5 = very useful) rating (5 = very useful) Table 4: Selected comments about the framework and WCA method by 17 . Figure 4 shows there was much greater agreement about the value of the framework than about the value of the entire WCA method. Figure 4: Evaluation of the framework and WCA method by executive MBA students Twenty EMBA students provided these rankings along with comments on feedback forms after using a version of the WCA method to analyze an information system in their business. and ran the gamut from positive to negative. and any additional comments or suggestions for improvements. a 1 to 5 rating of the usefulness of the WCA method (in its previous form). But other students found this quite valuable as an organized way to think about the systems they were analyzing. or think about each topic. Comments in Table 4 indicate that students who found the WCA method less valuable viewed it as cumbersome and somewhat redundant since it used the same framework repeatedly to look at different aspects of a situation. The version of the WCA method explained earlier is a revision of the version these students. it was given as a homework assignment and counted as five percent of the grade. From the outset it was clear to the students that the ideas were being developed and that genuine feedback was desired. write.useful) to 5 (very useful) rating of the framework.
other comments and suggestions: • For baseline analysis [the framework] can assist to “walk-thru” the components of enabling systems for business needs. • A very logical thought process...scope. As it is. I plan to use a variation of this to teach. I did. I think a typical business person would become bogged down in terminology and layers of analysis unless they were looking at an extremely simple process. • I found the focus on the customer and business processes quite useful.. • The process is too cumbersome to use for systems you and others are somewhat familiar with. comments about the WCA method (later revised to incorporate this feedback): • I thought the high level groupings -. Perhaps this could be condensed somehow.. The opposite way managers are trained to write in a business environment.executive MBA students These selected comments were chosen to identify the main benefits and issues seen by EMBA students who used the framework and WCA method to analyze an information system. 18 .. • I think it would be vastly more usable by the novice if it were set up like a work book with a series of questions posed at each step. Bottom line. the experience is very beneficial in helping me to communicate with the MIS department. You feel you have covered everything since you’ve done the analysis from all 6 points of view. why it works well. to be useful.. location. The strategic impact of the business process and where integration with other processes (can and will occur) has not been addressed.. The WCA method was subsequently revised to incorporate this feedback. products. • There is a learning curve involved in using the framework.... processes. I think it has great value when you are analyzing a system that is new to you. Excellent communication tool. • Following the system mechanically is not very good. I also had difficulty separating the business process from the participants. • The greatest value was in challenging my view and thought process. • The highly structured analysis was very helpful. however.) • I found it hard to think about the customers as separate from the products. As a business person it tends to seem very detailed. also leads to a false sense of security. Also from a facilitator’s point of view pre-work would need to be designed for a team who would use this. cycle for each of the categories. • Too much detail. • The framework was extremely helpful for me to see how the process really works. • very useful for understanding and approaching systems analysis. Makes it very simple to overcome “writer’s block” when getting started. I unearthed some issues I hadn’t previously identified in spite of a rather thorough analysis. . architecture.. find that it got tedious going through the customers. Also missing is the facilities questions (physical capacity.. and what the components are. comments about the framework: • I think the framework is very good for ensuring that you consider information systems in the context of your overall business process.. etc..
• An information system is a particular type of business process. have a beginning and end. WHAT IS THE NATURAL UNIT OF ANALYSIS FOR BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS? The development of the WCA method started as a search for a way business professionals can analyze information systems effectively. The concluding sections of the paper will look at issues related to the natural unit of analysis for business professionals and implications for future teaching and research. The relationship between information technology. Stated differently. A business professional could think of the system as the information technology. and/or display information. Software products ranging from spreadsheet and word processing software to DBMS and EIS software are not information systems because they are not business processes in their own right. or as the firm that consists of multiple business processes. 19 . manipulate. the WCA method is based on the assumption that the business process. is the natural unit of analysis for business professionals. and have inputs and outputs (Harrington. transmit. Davenport 1993).• In the particular case studied I thought the model could use a feedback loop as customers change to participants and then to customers again. and business processes To explore this issue. as the information system that uses the technology. • Information technology is the hardware and software used by information systems. Instead. information. rather than the information system or the information technology. one that uses information technology to capture. information systems. Business processes consist of steps related in time and place. 1991. but ended up with a framework (Figure 1) that doesn’t identify the information system explicitly. thereby supporting one or more other business processes. as the business process that contains or is supported by the information system. retrieve. whereas the information system appears implicitly as the part of the larger system that happens to use information and technology. store. • A business process is a related group of steps or activities that use people. Figure 5 reveals a series of different levels for defining “the system” being considered in any particular situation. and other resources to create value in the form of products and/or services for internal or external customers. the business process appears explicitly and is highlighted in the center of the framework.
customers. • The business environment includes the firm itself and everything else that affects its success. Figure 5: Relationship between IT. regulatory agencies. and business processes within the firm and the business environment The definition of the five terms imply the type of hierarchical layering illustrated here. The layering is sometimes misleading. and demographic. business environment firm business process information system information technology 20 . social.• A firm (or government organization) consists of a large number of interrelated business processes that work together to generate products and/or services for external customers in a business environment. suppliers. because many information systems play a role in many different business processes. such as competitors. and economic conditions. however. IS.
the headline and independent variable. one might wonder why introductory courses emphasize technology so much more than business processes. Viewing the system as the entire firm is too broad for most decisions business professionals are involved in. an IS professional’s viewpoint puts the information system in the forefront. an idea expressed in many forms such as competing on core competencies (Prahad and Hamel. 1993). According to Figure 5. and contextual factors not directly related to uses of information technology. and practice. An IS professional’s viewpoint: “the system” as an information system Although Figure 5 might describe a business professional’s viewpoint. and it adds value by supporting one or more business processes. except the rare decisions that are truly strategic in nature. And while there is an obvious need for IS professionals to master documentation and specification techniques such as data flow diagrams and data dictionaries. In other words. research. “the system” is the information system. business success. just as a clothier’s viewpoint would emphasize the clothes. 1988). it is more direct for them to think of competing on business processes. technology. one might wonder why they aren’t trained in a wide range of techniques for communicating and collaborating effectively with their customers using terms their customers find natural. Figure 5 also raises questions about the way IS researchers and practitioners use slogans such as “competing on technology” (the theme of SIM’s 1992 conference) and the “productivity paradox. Keen.. is nested three or four layers away from the dependent variable. 1992). Quinn. human relationships. Doing this also deemphasizes crucial issues in the business realm. For an IS professional. competing on technology would mean using information technology in information systems that support business processes that permit a firm to compete more effectively in a business environment. Even when business professionals recognize fully that technology is an essential enabler. 1988. Viewing the system as an information system or as information technology forces business professionals to focus on peripheral topics and technical details others are better equipped to handle. 1990. such as the essential information. If the natural unit of analysis for business professionals is truly the business process rather than the information system. competing on time (Stalk. and mass customization (Pine.The WCA method assumes it is practical and effective for business professionals to view “the system” as a business process involving information and technology. the issue would probably shift to how and why technology was incorporated into business processes that generated success. If Figure 5 could influence the productivity paradox discussion.” as headlines rather than other possible slogans emphasizing business processes. The fact that many business processes may be involved adds a new level of complexity because the IS professional may have to 21 . The number of layers in Figure 5 makes it seem almost amazing that Brynjolfsson (1994) found a return on investment of 60% for a sample of service firms . Figure 5 has a number of direct implications for teaching.
the information system is “the system” and it may be much larger than any particular business process it supports.optimize over the requirements of many different user business processes and key internal IS processes. Figure 6: IS professional’s view of an information system that supports many different business processes The American Airlines SABRE system can be viewed as a single information system that supports or includes many different business processes. It shows that SABRE includes capabilities related to business processes ranging from transaction processing activities such as updating schedules and fares and generating and distributing tickets through decision support functions such as helping travel agents find the best flight for the customer and performing yield management calculations to determine the number of discount seats offered by the airlines. The parts of the boxes outside the oval represent parts of these business processes that might be considered outside SABRE’s scope. What about IS infrastructure? An important objection to the WCA method is that it does not adequately handle analysis of infrastructure systems such as voice and data networks because it emphasizes the role of information technology within individual 22 . and IS staff hiring and education. The SABRE system determining the number of discount seats on each flight generating sales statistics updating flight schedules and fares comparing alternative flights for travel agent customers booking flights printing and distributing tickets A business professional analyzing any of these processes would want to include the parts of SABRE directly involved and view the rest of SABRE as shared infrastructure or as an externality. But the IS professionals who run SABRE have to optimize the entire system to insure it supports the required functions in a cost-effective manner. such as development. Figure 6 represents part of an IS professional’s view of the American Airlines SABRE system. To help visualize this point. Each of these functions can be viewed as a separate business process at least part of which is within SABRE’s scope. maintenance. From the IS professional’s viewpoint.
human and ethical issues. The conclusions from this entire discussion is that the information system is a better unit of analysis for the IS professional while the business process is more appropriate for the business professional.business processes. IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND RESEARCH Many ideas in this paper are consistent with the spirit of the paradigm shift occurring in the introductory IS course at both undergraduate and MBA levels. improving IS concepts. and business infrastructure. airline reservation systems may have initially been viewed as isolated business processes supported by islands of technology. One possible response is that business professionals do not really care about infrastructure. This is a shift away from emphasizing technical vocabulary and computer literacy and toward emphasizing business processes. For example. Recognizing that business professionals analyze systems This paper is based on the assumption that business professionals need to analyze systems from their own business viewpoint rather than from a 23 . Three related aspects of the paper raise issues for both teaching and research: 1) the arguable assertion that the IS field lacks concepts and methods business professionals can use effectively to gain insight by performing their own analysis 2) the description of the WCA method and how it evolved with the help of MBA and EMBA students 3) the conclusion that the business process is a better unit of analysis for business professionals than the information system. recognizing that our buzzwords. and abandoning the view of ourselves as computer people. and classifications no longer suffice. But eventually they became crucial infrastructure of the airlines. Systems considered applications one year or in one department may eventually be considered infrastructure another year or in another department. Perhaps they should concentrate on business processes and organizational feasibility while leaving the technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness tradeoffs to IS professionals. competitiveness. What they care about is the business processes that currently use the infrastructure or could do so eventually. And these systems themselves rely on other elements of societal infrastructure such as electric power generation or network maintenance that public utilities providers view as business processes. The paper’s implications for research and teaching can be organized under four headings: recognizing that business professionals analyze systems. Another possible response is that whether or not something is infrastructure is in the eye of the beholder. slogans.
Experiments could be designed that would test the WCA method and would compare it to other alternatives. chapters of any introductory textbook. such as common terms used to describe or evaluate individual elements of the framework from the various perspectives. The research would be performed by giving business professionals (or student proxies) instruction on any set of IS concepts and methods and then trying to identify differences in performing systems analysis tasks. Knowing and sharing these ideas is important for teaching and research because the ideas form the foundation for sharing knowledge and experience. and level of integration can be used to discuss business process architecture. performance. or a series of hands-on computer exercises. these ideas provide coherence and rationale for most of the material currently taught. An interesting part of the question here is to delve more deeply into the way business professionals think about systems. In other words.technical IS viewpoint. 1993). Emphasizing systems analysis by business professionals along with the importance of business processes does not mean that existing introductory courses need to be thrown away. context. feedback control. Instead of the action research approach used to develop the WCA method. the future research could be done using a more standard experimental approach. but it does show that the WCA method or something like it can be taught in a classroom setting and can be applied successfully by business professionals. A more detailed discussion of the WCA method would identify secondary ideas. input. range of involvement.. product. The question about the proper unit of analysis for business professionals could be explored similarly. infrastructure. environment. The basic ideas implied by the current form of the WCA method are shown in the labels and annotations in Figures 1 and 2. participant. boundary. For example. Identifying and improving the basic concepts in the field From the outset this paper has raised questions about the basic ideas in the IS field. however. business process. group discussion of a number of case studies. subsystem. architecture. or that does not involve a business process at all. Alternative experimental treatments might include an explanation of the WCA method or some variation on it. Many research issues stem from the assumption that business professionals need to analyze systems from their own distinct business viewpoint. and risk. terms such as degree of structure. from general systems theory) could be evaluated in 24 . such as by raising questions about the face validity of empirical IS research that ignores the business process supported by the information system. The ideas in this paper also cast some light on past IS research. etc. technology. The immediate question about teaching is whether most existing introductory IS courses are truly directed at the topics and skills business professionals care about and can internalize. are they truly designed to serve the customer? The research reported here does not deal with that question. The usefulness of this set of basic terms versus any other potential set of basic terms (such as system. such as through metaphors (Kendall and Kendall. information. plus the assertion that current IS concepts and methods are insufficient. output. These terms include customer. To the contrary.
A safer research project might involve training people on a particular set of basic terms and observing the impact on their subsequent work on system-related projects. and classifications have a short half life The idea of trying to identify basic concepts is also valuable for identifying terms that couldn’t be basic concepts because there is no agreement about their meaning or because their meaning changes every five years. slogans. topic connotation as a business process connotation as technology expert system decision support system executive information system end user computing providing information to the person doing work so that it is performed the way an expert would do it decision process in which business professionals actually use computers interactively for an important task process during which executives use interactive computers to monitor recent business results and track the business environmental business process in which users use computing directly to do their jobs inference. Reporting research in a way that adds to knowledge and communicates effectively when using these terms requires greater clarity about whether topic is the business process connotation. the issue might be whether the terms genuinely help students understand a wide range of real world situations. To show how the framework in Figure 1 makes it easier to see the problem. A high risk research project might look for differences between the basic terms currently used by typical business professionals and the basic terms used by IS professionals. For teaching. decision support system. frames. the technology connotation. These terms are important because they are used frequently. Terms such as artificial intelligence. but students’ complaints about the excess of buzzwords. supercomputer. and office automation belong in this category. PROLOG computer program combining data analysis and modeling to help business professionals analyze a decision interactive computer system making it easy for executives to find information they want if it has been included personal computer and spreadsheet used in an office or on an airplane 25 . Recognizing that IS buzzwords. yet these terms are often featured as important ideas in introductory information system texts. This research might find little or no commonality in the basic terms used by anyone to refer to anything other than technology per se.various ways. Table 6 identifies a number of common system categories each of which has connotations as a business process and as a technology. Table 6: classification schemes viewed as a business process or as technology Business process ideas and technology ideas are both associated with system categories. or both (or neither). such McLean et al (1993) show for the term end user computing. if-then rules. This causes confusion and ambiguity when the same technologies are used for different types of business processes. LISP. and time-varying classification schemes are perfectly justified because the featured terms often aren’t the basic concepts. slogans.
R. 887-898. other display equipment. Business Process Improvement.. J. I. E. Many of our colleagues in other areas of business agree with that image and believe we are dispensable precisely for that reason.” pp. Fl. J. and D. Shifting the emphasis in the introductory IS course away technology details and toward business processes and systems analysis is one of the ways we can avoid being cast as computer people. it is a way we can provide genuine value to the future business professionals who are our customers. We also need to avoid acting as cheerleaders for computing and the computer industry. E. Everyone will be a computer person soon. We still need to impart understanding of technology. McGraw-Hill: New York. R.” Communications of the ACM (36:12).management information system management process in which managers use information to monitor recent business results and make decisions group decision process of using networked support terminals to support a face to face system multi-participant meeting standard summary reports generated periodically based on data in a transaction processing system the networked terminals. 1993. 271-283 in Proceedings of the Fourteen International Conference on Information Systems. Technology is wonderful. Davidson. pp. (24:9). T. MA. pp. H.” Management Science. “The Productivity Paradox of Information Technology. Jr. More important. 26 . Davenport. Bostrom. References Boland. Harrington. Process Improvement: Reengineering Work through Information Technology. Robey (eds. Many of us still view ourselves as computer people. People drive cars without knowing about ignition systems just as they use computers and telecommunications without knowing much about the operation of computer chips. Harvard Business School Press: Boston. J. 1991. DeGross. May 1978. December 1993.) Orlando. but we need more clarity about the difference between transient details of today’s technology and the basic ideas that will still apply five years from now. Brynjolfsson. and software for note taking and voting Abandoning the view of ourselves as computer people Placing more emphasis on business processes and on systems analysis by business professionals is part of a major ongoing change. J. “An Exploratory Study of Joint Application Design (JAD) in Information Systems Delivery. Positioning ourselves as computer people is a losing strategy because the mystery is gone from computers. 1993. 67-77. “The Process and Product of System Design. H. but it is not our job to convince students it is a panacea or that they will have important skills when they can add a column of numbers using a spreadsheet. P.
pp. 149-171. H. MA. Quinn. II. G. W. Keen. Stalk. Kappelman. in press. Publication by author. K. Competing in Time: Using Telecommunications for Competitive Advantage. 79-92. Intelligent Enterprise.” MIS Quarterly (18:1). C. “Time .. P. “The Core Competence of the Corporation.” Harvard Business Review. G. MA. K. “Converging End-User and Corporate Computing. Free Press: New York. J. E. J. P..Hirschheim. May-June 1990. G. E. R. B. Jr.” Communications of the ACM (36:12). Ballinger Publishing Company: Cambridge. R and Klein. 1992.. “Metaphors and Methodologies: Living Beyond the Systems Machine. and Kendall. 83-109. 1988. To be inserted after the refereeing process. McLean. Harvard Business School Press: Boston. 41-51. July -August 1988. 79-91. and Thompson. pp.The Next Source of Competitive Advantage. J.. 27 . L. 1993. and Hamel. K. E. Prahad. December 1993. pp. Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition. pp.” MIS Quarterly (17:2) June 1993. A. Kendall. B. March 1994. Pine. J.. “Realizing Emancipatory Principles in Information Systems Development: The Case for ETHICS.” Harvard Business Review. pp.
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