Aleksi Aaltonen

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Desperately Seeking the Information System in IS

Last Friday, I participated in a panel at LSE together with a number of distinguished Information Systems professors including Jannis Kallinikos (LSE), M. Lynne Markus (Bentley University) and Yasmin Merali (University of Hull). We were supposed to talk about “The Future Avenues for IS Research” and, as always, the discussion turned to the ambiguous identify of IS as scientific discipline. My introductory notes to the panel are here (though I did not follow them too carefully).

To me, my former PhD supervisor Jannis Kallinikos nailed it few years back when he pointed out that IS is a field of research largely defined by its research object. Unlike strong disciplines such as economics, IS does not impose its view on the world but changes with its subject matter. Given the speed of technological change, it’s therefore hardly surprising that IS suffers from a chronic identity crisis. The future of IS panels, debates about our disciplinary status and ongoing attempts to pin down the nature of IT artefact are, in some way, all efforts to cope with this identity crisis.

A good crisis can be a source of innovation, or it can result it turning inwards and spending intellectual energy to protect the traditional domain of IS. The latter would be a fatal mistake. If the object of IS research is changing, so must our methodologies, research sites and theories. The idea of having to learn completely new ways of doing research is for sure discomforting to many and there are limits to how a broad portfolio of methods and theories a person can command. At the same time, the panelist seemed to agree that sticking to the old ways of doing IS will not be enough.

I better not to try summarising the views of the panelists, not to mention the audience, regarding how exactly IS scholarship needs to change. However, I believe there was some degree of consensus about the following – at least I did not record any vehement objections: The subject matter of IS is not anymore standalone applications and systems but something much more ambiguous and distributed. For the sake of better term, let us call that an ‘information system’.

In order to understand systems that process information such as mortgage underwriting, Wikipedia governance or the implications of big data on privacy, we typically have to study many different actors, a whole ensemble of hardware and software components, rules and regulations that are brought together across institutional and industrial boundaries. The changes are underpinned and shaped by massive infrastructures and the nature of digital material into which social, cultural and economics entities become inscribed.

Also, IS must keep opening the black box of technology, otherwise we risk becoming wannabe sociologists. While an information system is never just software and hardware, unless we can account for the ‘technology’ in the information system, it will be hard to claim a unique perspective vis—à-vis more established disciplines. At the same time, IS scholars are probably better off by not trying to compete with real engineers and, perhaps, even practitioners in studying technology alone, that is, ensembles of software and hardware artefacts, and how to develop them.

The question remains, whether there is any space left for IS to fill between engineering and traditional social sciences. Of course there is, but that space is a moving target. We should grab intellectual land quickly and leave old, depleted pastures for those can still squeeze something out from them with increasingly sophisticated methodological instruments and disciplinary frameworks.

Discussion

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