History of Information Systems

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HISTORY OF INFORMATION SYSTEMS

1.1 INTRODUCTION

In 1981, Gary Dickson published the first and (arguably) last widely recognized historical treatment of the field of management information systems (MIS) – now more commonly called information systems (IS). Given the many shifts in the direction of IS since 1981 and the wide-ranging and sometimes heated debate about the identity and core characteristics of IS, we contend that the field could benefit substantially from another historical analysis. Indeed, our position is a simple one -- that it is important for IS researchers to have at least some form of shared understanding of the short history of our field; that is, the major intellectual waves that shaped our perspectives. Most of these intellectual waves originated in Europe – in particular, the U.K. and Scandinavia – and the U.S. These waves were originally distinct but have gradually come together. For example, the original Conference on Information Systems (CIS) has become ICIS (the International Conference on Information Systems); AIS – our institutional IS academic body – has a membership consisting of a significant and growing number of international affiliates. Yet, only a few old-timers, who directly participated in the beginnings of the globalization of IS research, know the intellectual foundations that drove these institutional changes and that now legitimize them. Therefore, a historical reflection, biased and incomplete as it necessarily must be, can provide an essential foundation for a broader dialogue for those in – or wishing to join – the field. In this article, we attempt to excavate the most significant milestones of the field’s evolution and place them in their historical context. We need to state at the outset that our historical interpretation has a distinct academic, US-centric, business school-oriented, private sector focus, interpretive research method, systems development bias. It should go without saying that all histories are biased. While we have done our best to articulate key historical events, artifacts, people, research themes and ideas, we are well aware that others will believe we have not done justice to their favorite historical facts; that we have underplayed/undervalued certain events, people, or research topics or missed major milestones. To be sure, what constitutes the key aspects of history is in the eye of the beholder. This paper represents our “view” of history. The field could benefit from other interpretations of its history, and we welcome and encourage others to offer their historical views. Indeed, the JAIS special issue devoted to IS history is a key milestone in the field’s recognition of the importance of history.
1.2. The History of IS
Since its inception in the mid 1960s (Davis, 2000), the IS field has seen significant progress. From its early days when the focus was on differentiating itself from computer science and other disciplines, to its current state of disciplinary recognition, IS has had an eventful (some might say tumultuous) history. The challenge for us is to take this continuously evolving history and document it in some coherent fashion. This challenge is considerable, because there is no straightforward – or generally accepted – way to write the story of IS. Portraying more than 45 years of history as one continuous linear set of events would be mind-numbingly boring. We have, therefore, chosen to divide this history into eras or epochs13. We are well aware that such a division has its own set of challenges: what constitutes an era; when does one era begin and one end; how does one choose the boundaries of the eras; what about events that span multiple eras; and so on. There are no easy answers to such questions. Nevertheless, disciplines, organisms, and social collectives often describe their histories in terms of eras (epochs) or development periods where each successive period...
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