Management Information Systems

Knowledge management & information bubbles avant la lettre

This is a summary of Chapter Seven of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Computerized information systems     … are mostly automated forms of traditional libraries. They are systems all right, but far from a systems approach to information. Libraries are organized in ‘non-systemic’ (i.e. non-separable) departments: solicitation, cataloguing, storing, advertising, research. Research looks mostly at user behavior in a superficial, i.e. statistical manner: number of lent books, and – these days – number of clicks. The value to users is not recorded, but assumed. A systems approach would require the development of a management and evaluation model that operates on the basis of optimization of value to the user with the usual considerations of costs and alternatives.

2.  Traditional libraries       … were originally created to collect and store documents subject to a kind of quality filter. The first retrieval systems probably date back to the Hellenistic world. The first recorded librarian of the Library of Alexandria was Zenodotus of Ephesus. During his tenure, Callimachus compiled the Pinakes (tables – or index L. or catalogue Gr. – of the contents of the Library of Alexandria), about 245 BC. Simple indexes are subject (or title) and author-based. More complex ones make use of a thesaurus (a specialized vocabulary) to describe document subjects more completely and unambiguously, thus forming a kind of expanding ‘fact net’ (see Leibnizian inquiring systems). The problem with all these indexing systems is that they have little to do with the specific problem (in terms of knowledge or otherwise) a user attempts to solve (except in a discipline such as medicine, which is fairly strictly organized around the problem of human diseases), but more with the way pieces of information must be organized to find them back. Libraries are also notoriously dull places (the Library of Alexandria was perhaps an exception), requiring exceptionally curious and diligent people to enjoy themselves with what they have to offer. Perhaps this was anticipated by Plato who was opposed to learning from books and therefore even to writing them (although he did write or dictate, fortunately). In his Academy learning involved asking creative questions in the form of Socratic dialogues, something that catalogued knowledge seems to stifle, because it restricts queries to the “fact net” of the indexing system.

3.  Management information systems     … are created to support decision-making, esp. in large corporations. It is also a course in business schools. MIS can deal with resource planning, supply chain management, customer relations, and knowledge management. Churchman doesn’t mention any of these, probably because they didn’t exist yet as separate areas of study in 1968. What Churchman had seen was the potential of computerized information systems. And their challenges and limitations, which is what this chapter is mostly about. The key question is how managers may obtain valid information that is relevant to their problems. For an information system to be able to supply such information it must be able to identify which information is valid and relevant and understand how it could help the manager in his or her decision-making. This requires a model of the manager (the ‘user model’) and a forecasting model to be able to contrast different potential solutions. This is likely to be a reiterative rather than linear process involving a ‘rich’ interchange. This ‘richness’ is in stark contrast to the minimal user relevant indexing of a classical library.

4.  Enriched interchange     Knowledge management is not a topic dealt with explicitly by Churchman (1968), because it didn’t exist at the time. In The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman (1971, p. 10) starts with a pragmatic definition of knowledge: an ability of some person to do something correctly. This means it is not a collection of information, because that would “rob the concept of its life” as “vital potential that makes an enormous difference in the world,” or in ´the whole system´. The question remains what the boundaries of ´the whole system´ are. These are defined by its ´effectiveness´, which conceptualizes an optimized form of value creation minus the costs or effort or time needed for creating it. Information and knowledge are the ‘stuff’ of the systems approach, which is all about understanding problems and identifying the best alternative policies. Now, most societal and business problems are complex in nature, which means that problem ‘analysis’ and intervention ‘design’ are aspects of the same process.  The core business of knowledge management would therefore be adapting the enriched interchange necessary for that process to different organizational contexts.

5. Systems approaches       Churchman emphasizes that there are different systems approaches. One of them is the scientific systems approach. In this case it has considerable difficulty of coming to grips with the subject: information. Churchman throws in a few of its notions to get a clearer picture, but there seems to have been a serious lack of tools, techniques or methods to go much beyond a general statement of what would be required for some real improvements to standing practice. The main points are that valid and relevant information must be obtained from multiple sources (not just computer-based information systems) and used in an enriched interchange about the purpose of a future intervention. The interchange must facilitate the asking of creative questions to identify innovative alternatives and must develop a model to compare these alternatives in an effort to find the one that optimizes value creation. Because every information system is likely to have an underlying Weltanschauung (or fundamental worldview), there is a risk of creating information circles (or bubbles as we say in 2017). Since Churchman also favors a dialectical systems approach it is important to listen to what ‘the humanist’ has to say, which is that our information system risks being closed to the outside world and its notions of deeper human reality, including those of morality and esthetics. In all likelihood this question cannot be settled for good, so the dialectics will only be interrupted by unavoidable decisions.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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