The Three Ages of Information Systems

Information Systems, like man, go through three ages but in a different order. For man, the three ages are the excitement of youth, the liberation of the prime of life and the constraints of old age. For Information Systems, the three ages are the excitement of the early, creative days of need, the constraints of misguided centralised control and the liberation of human-centred, information value appreciation. The trick is leapfrog from the creative first age to the productive third age without going though the destructive stagnation of the second age.

The need culture era

In the early days, when the Internet was new to organisations or, now, when an existing organisation wakes up to the opportunities of the Internet or a new organisation is founded with the Internet at its heart, the pressure for results is very great. External competitors and internal rivalries result in a “can do, must do” environment. Even if the organisation has an IT department, the high level, high speed pressure means they have very limited control. It’s the “just do it!” era.

The result is a heterogeneous set of hardware and software, not implemented according to a guiding strategy and so hard to manage. It is also costly, partly because of mistakes made in the rush for results and partly because of the support costs. Often, the new systems do not interoperate as well as they should, creating data islands, further reducing efficiency and increasing costs.

The control culture era

The rising costs of the information systems attract the attention of the finance department, which seeks to bring the costs “under control”, i.e. to reduce them but, above all, to make them predictable. The IT department sees this as a way to introduce the organisation-wide standardisation that it always dreamed of having, in the belief that forcing everyone to have the same hardware and software makes costs predictable, improves efficiency and, of course, makes their life easier.

But this approach is doomed to failure. It inevitably means that some people do not have enough software and that most people have too much. Giving everyone a spreadsheet just so they can view finance department budget email attachments is not a cost-effective solution to information access and indicates the lack of a clear information strategy. It also does not take into account the unpredictable factors; the different information creation and interaction rates. Finally, the whole arrangement becomes too inflexible and becomes bogged down in “upgrade agony”.

The “standardised PC” is, in any case, a myth. With 90-day product life cycles and sub-contracted manufacture, you seldom see identical PCs from one delivery to the next. The success of the old hardware in new, designer wrapper Apple iMAC, has set a trend eagerly being followed by PC makers, to differentiate technically similar products by visual style. The Taiwan tin box is dead. It just confirms the status of the computer as “part of the furniture” which will be bought more on aesthetic than technical grounds, since all of them provide, essentially, the same functionality.

Furthermore, the dominance of the PC as the primary networked information interaction device is set to wane. Apple computers, long the hate object of PC-based corporate IT departments will penetrate the corporate network. New devices, better suited to particular types of interaction are emerging; PDAs are just the start of this process. Just when the IT department thought they had it under control, a new development bursts onto the scene to make it all slip away again. Remote access, wireless access and extranet links with close trading partners are breaking down the boundaries of the IT department just as much as they are those of the organisation itself. The new “just do it!” imperatives will be to support these new devices and new functionality to compete with rivals and to appear “leading edge”.

The value culture era

This is the information system nirvana to which all systems should aspire and which all systems must, ultimately, evolve. It is a human-centred approach, concentrating on the real information and interaction needs of the users. That interaction between information and users is what generates knowledge, they key organisation resource of the future. Appreciating the value of that knowledge and the users who create it will be the new prime directive.

The new approach recognises that the current dominance of the Web and other Internet protocols means that the type of hardware is becoming less significant; it all talks Internet protocols. The more Web-enabled devices and applications become, the less need there is for the corporate network operating system, like NT or Novell. IT departments may think they need them, but they don’t scale to the Internet and they don’t work the way the Internet does. And, however successful you may think your corporate network is, the Internet is more successful.

In the not too distant future, the only difference between the Internet and an Intranet will be a question of access; who can access what, when, where, etc. There will be no other difference.

As well as Web-enabling, the other key to this is directory services, not a network operating system. Banyan and Novell have realised this and are repositioning themselves around Internet protocols and directory services but Microsoft hopes it can keep you locked in to expensive server operating systems with proprietary application protocols. Even those of you running Linux will use it less like a network operating system and more like an Internet and directory server.

The emphasis shifts from technology to content and the way in which this information is created, processed, stored and accessed and the user interactions involved. This is where it should all have started but, somehow, never did. It is the information and the way in which it is handled that supports the business process, not the hardware or the software; they are now just as much enabling commodity technologies as the wires in the wall. Internet is the new utility, like water, gas and electricity – but not telephony, because that will all be Internet too.

Interoperability, internal and external, will no longer be an issue of hardware and software commonality but one of information domains and boundary transformations of compatible information between them. The design of the information representation, structures and processes, together with the sophisticated metadata that describes it all, is the new intellectual activity in information system design. The best people to deal with this are, of course, the information stakeholders; the people who actually interact with the information are the ones who know and understand it best. Guided by these stakeholder users, the new kinds of human-centred information specialists - information architects, metadata authors, process rule modellers, transformation coders and semantic schema writers – will design true information systems, in a technology-free context.

IT departments – are you worried?

If those of you who work in corporate IT departments are starting to get worried by all this and the extent to which it will destroy all that centralised control you have so carefully nurtured all these years, don’t worry, that’s not your problem.

Your problem is that, unless you manage to become a human-centred information specialist or can somehow turn yourself into a real business manager, you will wind up working for a new type of utility company, to which all your organisation’s commodity IT and communications will have been outsourced.

Your job will have really cool technology but will actually just be a cross between TV repairman, electricity lineman and pipe valve operator. Worried now?

(Originally written March 2000)