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Decision ≠ Monitoring

Explaining what an information system is good for and what it cannot do.
Group of lightbulbs
© University of Strathclyde
Sometimes IS/ICT is sold and purchased with all the wrong conceptions on what purpose they serve. Therefore, I discuss below some prominent points of what computerised IS/ICT can really help you with and what is not a matter of IS/ICT.
What IS/ICT does is it stores and manipulates data. What it can help you with follows from this, along the lines of the six characteristics discussed last week. So the first thing IS/ICT can offer is to have all the right data available at hand (i.e. in the right place). This can often be what we may call ‘actual data’ which could be difficult, expensive and time-consuming to come by otherwise. For instance, in 2007 I saw a presentation by a company called Business Objects (later acquired by SAP), and they have embedded a gadget in their PowerPoint slide showing real-time sales figures from a chain of shops all around the world. Collecting all this data, even in a reasonably fresh manner, would not only be prohibitively expensive but outright impossible without IS/ICT. We would use various estimations in place of actual data.
If your IS/ICT is adequately designed, this data would also be error-free. If data is manually copied multiple times there is a chance for error every time. Connected databases transferring data cannot make errors. This means that the original first recording of the data is the only possible source of error and IS/ICT designers are working hard to eliminate or, at least, minimise the possibility of error at the first recording. These do not only include RFID (radio-frequency identification), barcode readers, and the more accurate and versatile QR codes (Quick Response Code, essentially a two-dimensional barcode), and increasingly photo recognition, but also numerous rules of checking for whether the data appears to be plausible. For instance, if you enter your birthday that would make you 200 years old or if you are entering the amount of your daily car rental rate and you enter 200.000 GBP, you can get a warning that these numbers seem suspicious.
A good IS/ICT always means altogether less work, apart from a possible initial period that may include learning to use the systems as well as initial completion of once-to-record data. However, this work may be very different from what the user is used to. It may require a very different skill-set from the previous version of the same job. For instance, as a warehouse person you would have previously needed to remember what is stored where, how to climb the shelves to get the products whereas, in a computerised variant of the warehouse you need to click through your database, understand how it is structured, run searches, and so forth. Some people cannot adapt to the requirements of such job changes but you need to figure out how to deal with them.
A computerised IS/ICT can also help you get rid of tons of paper and enable much better handling of documentation, such as ISO, by making use of the interactive features of computers. Of course, some prefer paper. I have met a warehouse person who ran his paper-based registry on paper in parallel with the computerised system for a few years after the new IS was introduced. He was very proud when after three years the computer once crashed and he was able to retrieve the needed data from his paperwork – of course, the computer was rebooted in 10 minutes and everything was back to normal but he had his 10 minutes of surprise. However, if computers can help us to get rid of paper, this does not mean that they help getting rid of unnecessary reports that we would otherwise do on paper. This is not matter of computers, this is matter of organising. It is too easy to ‘cc everyone’ in an email, jamming people’s mailboxes. How many emails do you get daily that you should not have get at all in the first place? I have heard many people complaining that they often spend more time reporting about what they have done rather than actually doing it. What I am trying to say is that computers can also make it easier to request data from people, regardless whether this data is needed or not. Good IS design will therefore also include process reengineering, usually with the purpose of keeping these things at a manageable level and automating them as much as possible.
The above things that computerised IS can deliver, taken together enable finding the particular data or document you are looking for quickly and the systems may also help you find what you need even if you do not have a very clear picture what it is that you need. These information systems can also provide you with predefined analyses of huge amounts of data very quickly and this is where we often are mistaken in what we can expect from information systems. There are things they cannot offer however well they have been designed.
They do not take decisions in the case of ill-structured problems i.e. it cannot replace the human factor in leading an organization and cannot replace the strategic thinker. These are uniquely human features. This does not mean that these activities cannot be supported by computerised IS/ICT in these areas, only the type of IS/ICT that can be used for such support will not replace the human experts, only help them. Examples of this point would be the Decision Explorer causal mapping software (as in the previously mentioned SODA method) and the Doctus knowledge-based expert system.
© University of Strathclyde
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