Information Systems – Fundamentals and Issues
©1990-2006 John Lindsay, Kingston University, School of Information Systems
How then are we to pull together all the threads that we have tried to weave so far so that we can recall the question of information strategy. Perhaps the model introduced in Chapter 6 that starts with the subject of all systems; the individual involved in an organisation. From the individual move to the level of the small group of people with which that individual works, from the small group of people into the organisation which gives form and structure to these relationships, the organisation located within an economy and a market, in turn located into a world economy might be a useful framework to try and work through. The individual in every workplace, in every organisation, is then simultaneously the subject for self of the location in that organisation and the object of others. The subject for self is concerned both with creating self and with integrating a public and private life of which the workplace in the organisation is only one component. We thus see that the intersubjectivity of this individual person in every organisation as constituted of that organisation and constituting that organisation is then the subject with which an information system has to be addressed.
For most organisations and most people the relationship which is constructed is then one of wage labour. The consequence of this is that the relationship between the subject and the object is the relationship of alienation as a consequence of the expropriation of the surplus labour power of that individual constituted as a component of the process of the accumulation of capital in order that the organisation may compete in the world economy. It is true that parts of some individuals' lives are constituted out of a set of voluntary activities. In some sense those voluntary activities mean a different set of relationships with the information that they process, but I think that it remains generally true that the design of an information system is simultaneously the augmentation of the capacity of the individual to be able to perform a series of actions either voluntary undertaken or undertaken as a result of the turning of the markets, or that these operations are going to be undertaken against the subject and result in that individuals loss of control. It is then this tension between something which extends the competence and creativity of the individual human subject and which reduces that subjectivity by increasing the objectivity of an external other over that subject, which is the tension of every information system to the extent that the systematisation of any process removes the capacity to make individual judgements. It therefore removes the control that the individual subject has over the process. Every systematisation therefore means further removal of control because every new system changes the relationship between the subject and the object in the workplace. The consequence is that the tendency to reject it is going to be much stronger than a tendency to support it.
(Might have been lost while battery flat in previous dictation)
This relationship between the subject and the object in the organisation is probably then the explanation for the argument that every successful information system must have a champion who is going to drive it. It is precisely that champion's subjective control of the environment which allows, as a consequence of the triumph of his will in the organisation, for it to be a post ? rationalisation that that information system in fact had a champion. If then every information system changes the relationship between subject and object for every individual who is influenced by that information system we then see that there is a fundamental contradiction with the idea of a free market. In a free market, every individual is a buyer and a seller of information, capable of setting a price. On the basis of the bargaining power of buyer and supplier he or she is capable of changing his relationship to the rest of the system of which he is a part within the command and control environment. This is particularly strong as a result of the development of information systems in a military framework. The very language which is used in much management literature to explain relationships amongst people and organisations within the command and control environment means that any individual subject has almost no power at all to allow an internal market to function.
Not only do we then find a contradiction between the market orientation of a subject object relationship and the command and control orientation of this subject and object relationship but the relationship between every individual player within the organisation is going to shift according to which of these perspectives are taken and the relationship between the intra- industry and the inter- industry organisational issues. How then is the relationship within organisations and the relationship between organisations going to shift according to the way in which we see the development of the organisational form and the information architecture. Ideas of compulsory competitive tendering and of service level agreements are in a sense attempts to bring some sort of theoretical framework and organisation to this shift in bargaining power within and among organisations. The service level agreement then puts forward an idea of a relationship of a client and a user where the client agrees to develop a particular relationship with the service provider. Should the client and the user be the same person then the relationship with a service provider is relatively simple. If the client however is an information provider who is in turn going to have a series of users then the situation is going to become more complicated. Every information system therefore has users and every information system's designer has a client.
The way the information system's designer understands the relationship between the client and the users is going to give form to the system that he is attempting to design. Whether the buyer/supplier relationship which constructs the service level agreement for the client/user relationship is a freely accidental one as a consequence of a shared set of interests amongst the collaborators or is a consequence of the compulsion of a component market which is in no sense free, will then a give a shape to the set of relationships which can then be developed. If the service level agreement is the consequence of a process of constructing a set of information requirements and tender documents, the tender documents then being converted into contracts, from then onwards the issue of the monitoring of the implementation of the contract is likely to become a source of dissent. At this point the pricing, charging, costing, funding and paying issues that I referred to earlier will then come into play. As the client and user relationships both intra-organisational and inter-organisational begin to produce changes in the process whereby contracts and service level agreements are implemented and monitored, we must turn then to the issue of ownership and control. The consequence of digitised electronic information being capable of flowing seemlessly through and across the different forms and purposes for which it might have either been constructed, or for which the designer sees a possibility of using it, is that the issue of who owns it and who controls it is one which is going to become more and more contentious. An attempt to extend the laws of copyright into intellectual property rights, the attempts to create a crime of software piracy and logically from there of information piracy are going to recreate setters which are going to prevent the development of the whole range of the productive capacity which this new fluidity in information would otherwise allow us to have access to. The consequence of the breakup of Stalinism in the USSR has removed that international bogey which means that the concept of ownership and control, the relationship between the state, the agencies of the state, very large multi- national companies and the bargaining power of the buyer and supplier are now in an area where the great certainties of the past are much weaker than they were.
Throughout this book I have tried to argue that the private sector profit and loss rate of return on capital employed model, which is the basis of so much information systems design writing is completely inadequate to try and understand the role that information actually plays in organisations, and that the relationship between the public and private is in fact much more complex. If ownership and control are debatable and questionable issues then the relationship between the public and the private must be equally so. If we go back to the individual subject in an organisation - the individual who is being buffeted by the strangers in the market place, that individual has a private life and the relationship between that individual's public and private life will not have clear marked boundaries. Similarly at the level of ownership and control in client and user relationships, that which is public, in other words in the public sector, and that which is private, in other words within the ownership and control of companies, is going to be an area of increasing dispute. There are costs involved in trying to defend your information, not only against pirates, but against anybody who wants to be able to use it. You, in your turn, are going to want to be able to use information which exists in some other domain. Hence, the argument of the relationship between the market and the plan must be reopened. For every individual, for every organisation in society and for society in general, that which we will remember does not exist, the great debates of the 1980s, the level of the political were to say that planning is a pointless activity and the market determines the functioning of social organisations and it is the bargaining power of buyers and suppliers of individuals within the market place that then structures reality. While probably also a parody of most political positions, this means that the role of planning for individuals and organisations has been undervalued and so we have to restate that the process of building an information system is the conscious and deliberate intervention of individuals and organisations into a world economy in order to achieve a particular set of goals. This relationship between the plan, perhaps not the plan in the grand Stalinist 5 year sense of the word, but the plan in the sense of deliberate intention to achieve something rather than be buffetted by the slings and arrows of outraged fortune, then requires a deliberate and conscious intervention into a market place where the electronic movement of data, the buying of selling of information, is going to be one of the major shifts in the foreseeable future.
For these threads, the subject and the object, clients and users with contracts, ownership and control, the public and the private, the market and the plan, raise the most abstract problems which information systems design leaves us with. The problem that starts off at a level of the nought and the one. The problem that every binary system leaves us with, how do we get from the one to the other. For every nought contains within itself the emergent property of potentially becoming a one. Is there an anorexia nervosa desire for noughts to turn themselves into a one, or alternatively do ones contain it within themselves the very little essence of noughtness, a little hole the centre of every one which is going to, under the right circumstances, grow as it gradually becomes clear that the one is in fact a nought. This relationships between noughts and one, between true and false, between is and is not, between yes and no, this binary relationship which is the very basis of computerised information systems designs, is to put a particular reading onto all human activity, which leaves us with the problem of how do we get from the one to the other. And if we have a problem of how we get from a nought to a one, we have a problem of how we change quantity into quality. How do we have a situation in which a growth in a particular set of conditions and phenomena under some circumstances suddenly trips over into a different type of phenomenon altogether. At the level of information systems design, I have suggested that the mechanism for doing this is entirely based on the definition of the primitive, the protocols and the rules that will be built into an information architecture, but clearly this is not a mechanism whereby we can understand the functioning of human activity. And if the quantity quality problem is not quite abstract enough, we need move to one higher level of abstraction to the relationship between analysis and synthesis. It seems that much of the orientation, the business involved in designing information systems has to be concerned with the process of analysis. How you break down processes in organisations into their constituent parts in order that you can track the movement of information amongst them, the problem remains. How do you move from this level of analysis to check back to the organisation as a whole and say that it has to have a reason for existence, that the organisation as a whole has to be trapped in some way in order that one can decide upon its services. This process of synthesis seems to be completely missing from our literature.