Sign Information and Norm

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Ronald Stamper School of Management Studies University of Twente POBox 217, 7500 AE Enschede The Netherlands Tel: +31.53.894038 Fax: +31.53.339885 email:

In The Semiotics of the Workplace, edited by B. Holmqvist and P.B. Andersen in 1995,

(c) 1994 Ronald Keith Stamper. All rights reserved.

Signs, Information, Norms and Systems Ronald Stamper The motivation behind the work reported here has been practical since its inception and today, the results are actually proving successful in practice. The story began in an experience that I must surely share with many of my colleagues. I worked in public administration and then in industry where I experienced computers being used with great technical skill but with only poor results for the client organisation. There seemed to be one overwhelming reason for this technical efficiency combined with organisational ineffectiveness: we knew all about information technology but precious little about the information it carried. We could produce bottles but we did not understand the wine. Information is the wine. Information is a vague and elusive concept, whereas the technological concepts are relatively easy to grasp. Semiotics solves this problem by using the concept of a sign as a starting point for a rigorous treatment for some rather woolly notions surrounding the concept of information. A sign is a good concrete primitive. Semiotics only provides the sign as a primitive concept and a broad framework for exploring its properties and uses. What we discover is that many different meanings of `information' and other key concepts such as `communication', `meaning', `relevance' and so on, can be understood in many precise ways as a number of distinct properties of signs or of operations performed with signs. The theory of signs (semiotics or semiology) can transform our understanding of information systems (perhaps we should call them `semiological' systems) leading to vintages of better quality for all our new IT bottles. My greatest hope is that, one day, members of the information systems profession will stop talking about information as something `obtained by processing data to produce meaning'. That is not a real quotation - I hesitate to accuse specific writers - but rather similar forms of words appear in most textbooks that hazzard a defintion for `information'.

T he T heory of Signs
Business is getting things done by using information. All information is `carried' by signs of one kind or another, so understanding signs should contibute to our understanding information and information systems. Hence, semiotics, the doctrine of signs (John Locke, 1690) is worth investigating as an approach to the study of business organisations. The theory of signs, semiotics or semiology (Greek: `semeion' = diminutive of `sema' = mark or sign), has a long history dating from the ancient Greek philosophers. John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, treats semiotics together with physics and ethics as one of the three main branches of human knowledge. `Semiotics' and `semiology' overlap but they have different flavours. `Semiotics` tends to relate more to the logical aspects of signs, whereas `semiology' tends to relate more to the role that signs play in society and language. Semiotics is associated especially with the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, an American logician who flourished at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries - Peirce created the relational calculus, the foundation of relational databases technology and methods of cognitive mapping that have only just been reinvented by knowledge engineers. Semiology is associated with a tradition originating with Ferdinand de Saussure who died in 1913 but is best known by his Cours de Linguistique Général which was published from his students' notes in 1949. Rather broadly stated, semiotics is associated with an Ango-Saxon or Northern...
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