The Disciplinary Vagaries of Information Systems


More than thirty years ago, Professor Peter Checkland of the University of Lancaster, raised the question whether information systems (IS) and systems thinking could be united (Checkland, 1988). Almost twenty years later, Ray J. Paul, senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science also raised the disciplinary status of the subject, as editor the European Journal of Information Systems (Paul, 2007). These two papers are both illustrative of several others (e.g., Banville and Laundry, (1988)., George et. al., (2005)., Firth et. al., (2011)., Annabi and McGann, (2015)) from information systems as it attempts to find its own disciplinary boundaries among the crowd of academia, research, and vocational activities (c.f., Abraham et. al., (2006)., Benamati et. al., (2010).

The two papers are selecting not only to provide an at-a-glance illustration of the time-period of foundational issues within Information Systems as a discipline, but also the temporal context of each paper, and the differences in their views which, at least in part, is reflective of those different times. Drawing from these illustrative comments and from other source material mentioned, some critical issues facing the field of information systems is identified. Rather than attempting to enforce a niche for information systems, a philosophical reconstruction is carried out using formal pragmatics, as developed by the philosopher Karl-Otto Apel (1980) and the social theorist Jurgen Habermas (1984).

Checkland and Paul: A Review

Checkland argues that human beings are "unique" in converting data into information and attributing meaning. Whilst recent studies in animal studies suggest that a more relative term would be more appropriate (c.f., Pika, et. al, (2018)), the point is made. Information Systems are defined as "organized attempts" by institutions to provide information, dominated by the use of computers as the dominant means to carry this into effect. For Checkland a potential conflict between technical experts who avoid the social aspect, and agents of social change who side-step technical expertise, with the discipline lacking in a "Newton" to bring the field together.

In elucidating how this situation came about Checkland notes that the recent history of Information Systems begins with the approach of engineers and statisticians of the 1940s (e.g., Fisher, Wiener, Weaver, Shannon) were primarily concerned with signal-transmission of messages and their distortion, with no reference to meaning. This would be developed in a "semantic information theory" by Stamper et. al., at the London School of Economics, to include semantic analysis. Nevertheless Checkland argues that information systems have "tacitly followed the systems thinking of the 1950s and 1960s". In taking up this argument Checkland applies a phenomenological epistemology where the system is derived from concepts which themselves are a "mutually-creating relationship between perceived reality .. and intellectual concepts (which include 'system')".

Generalized approaches as systems to entities as an "autonomous whole" applies in a variety of fields as diverse as biology, ecology, engineering, economics, sociology etc, from the 1940s to the 1960s and beyond. Checkland argues that this approach correlated with the information technology systems at the time, where such "hard" systems theory where "organizations are conceptualized as goal-seeking machines and information systems are there to enable the information needs associated with organizational goals to be met". In the 1980s new technologies were making it increasingly possible to view organizations as"discourses, cultures, tribes, political battlegrounds, quasi-families, or communication and task networks", where functionalism was being replaced with "phenomenology and hermeneutics", which correlates with the development of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), meaning-attribution, and emergent properties, and where SSM is a learning system as a whole, and which makes system models.

With this transformation in technology and systems methodology, Checkland argues in the future computer projects will rarely use a project life cycle, except for when "relatively mechanical administrative procedures are computerized". Instead, projects will be increasingly orientated around tasks of perception and meaning where processes and information flows "increasingly need a social and political perspective", which places computing in the hands of the end-user, and where systems are developed so that they can learn and build their own information system. Checkland concludes that this "process orientation offers help with some of the crux problems of information provision in organizations in the 1990s".

Paul's editorial is quite different from Checkland's paper, with the most notable differences being between the difference of twenty years in time and the size of the publication; the editorial is a mere three pages compared to Checkland reaching just over ten. Despite this Paul managed to raise a great number of critical issues with both brevity and power, and with a great deal of hindsight wisdom when compared to the zeitgeist optimism of Checkland. Thematically Paul is concerned with the two topics of challenge and change, noting a variety of past editorials that are concerned with these matters, and notes a connection between them: It is clear to me that there are challenges to IS, and that it is time to address them – it is time to change.

Five challenges are identified which strike at the very core of Information Systems as a discipline and research project highlighting its continuing problematic status. Specifically, Paul states the following: "Nobody seems to know who were are outside the IS community", "Demand from students to study IS is generally dropping", "Research publications in IS do not appear to be publishing the right sort or content of research". In addition. Paul identifies "journal league tables" as being particularly troubling for the discipline, and finally, noting that what are information systems is still subject to significant debate.

Initially referring to the first four challenges, which are less elaborated, Paul suggests that the lack of IS's public recognition is because of its lack of distinct identity, often being located either within business studies or computer science, and suggests that a stronger IS community could provide the strength to overcome these barriers. Whilst the second challenge is an empirical measure it is suggested that community strength would overcome also help with declining enrolments. The third challenge is one of real-world applications versus pure research, with Paul strongly leaning towards the former. As for "journal league tables" Paul makes a case for journals to have a diversity of roles and fitness of purpose.

The final matter is the definition of IS. It is obviously difficult for a discipline to find its place in academia when it is unsure of its own core subject matter, Paul addresses this last point as a matter of major concentration. Taking an approach of via negativa, Paul tries to define information systems by what it is not. Thus, information systems are not information technology, which are the devices that provide the delivery mechanism for information systems. Nor is information systems the processes being used, and nor is the people using the technology and the processes. Instead, to Paul, information systems are the combination of these contributing factors. "The IS is what emerges from the usage and adaptation of the IT and the formal and informal processes by all of its users."

Critique and Reconstruction

Despite the differences in time, size, and even approach, both the papers from Checkland and Paul refer to the issue of identity for IS as a discipline and research project. Checkland provides a historical and philosophical approach to describing this matter and concludes with an optimistic zeitgeist of transformation, partially developed from a degree of technological determinism. Paul's editorial, in contrast, is more concerned with immediate issues and context, although this too is ultimately grounded in ontological and epistemological issues that confront Information Systems.

Checkland's historical argument of the transformation from "hard systems" approaches to SSM are largely accepted within the discipline, although the argument that this correlates with organisations moving from goal-seeking institutions to some sort of extended family is pretty speculative to say the least. Likewise is the claim of processes moving away from functionalism to more phenomenological and hermeneutic approaches, as if these are at variance to each other. After all, functionalism has both phenomenology and hermeneutics as a philosophical foundation. Whilst Checkland is close to transcending these subject-centred approaches with references to speech-act theory and the generation of meaning, they have not engaged in the core principle of linguistic philosophy which notes that shared symbolic values cannot be systematically generated on account of their intersubjectivity (Apel, 1980., Habermas, 1984).

Likewise, Paul's five challenges are not without problems. Two at least are not exactly IS unique problems but rather universal to all academic disciplines, that is the matter of conflict between pure research and practical application (see also Benamati et. al., (2010)) and the issue of journal league tables and fitness to purpose. The matter of IS lacking its own distinct disciplinary identity is certainly a challenge however as Paul's definitional conclusion indirectly notes, this is because it is a multi-disciplinary subject that draws together the organisational requirements in business studies with the technology of computer science. Finally, Paul takes a fairly idealistic approach in arguing that the drop in IS enrolments is due to a lack of an IS community. As Abraham et al (2006) point out, there were particularly historical macroeconomic issues as a major factor, specifically the "" crash of 2000-2002.

A reconstruction of the disciplinary identity of IS is founded on the philosophy of formal (or universal) pragmatics. Initiated by the "linguistic turn" of Wittgenstein (1953), this approach identifies language and meaning as something that is generated between people, and rather than taking a subject-centered view of the world elaborates this to an intersubjective approach. Uniting epistemological considerations with ontological ones formal pragmatics takes a rationalisation of world orientations with specific verification claims.

Unverifiable Metaphysics Physicalist, Symbolist, Idealist Theology
Verifiable Reality Logical and Empirical Philosophy
Orientations/Worlds (verification) 1. Objective or External World 2.Intersubective or Social World 3. Subjective or Internal World
1. Statements of Truth - Sciences (correspondence) Scientific facts Social facts Unverifiable
2. Statements of Justice - Laws (consensus) Unverifiable Legal Norms Moral Norms
3. Statements of Beauty – Arts (sincerity) Aesthetic Expressions Unverifiable Sensual Expressions

Table 1: Elaborated from Habermas (1984), illustrating the pragmatic complexes

In doing so, IS is placed within multiple complexes; not only does it have to deal with the world-orientation of objective facts (information technology), it is equally involved in the world-orientation of social facts (business processes); whereas earlier IS focussed more on the former, SSM was focussed more on the later. Both of these are part of DIKW hierarchy, which refers to the relationship between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom (Rowley (2007). IS is thus a subset of the wider body of knowledge management, which contains all the specific academic disciplines and world-orientations. Whilst the importance of IS will continue to grow due to the increased development of business processes, information technology, and their integration, it will always be a multi-disciplinary subject as it crosses pragmatic boundaries.

One sociological effect of formal pragmatics refers to an understanding of society as a combination of institutional systems and a lifeworld of communities. Procedural action occurs through institutional systems, whereas meaning generation occurs through the lifeworld. In this sense, a system cannot generate meaning and, despite the best efforts of public relations experts, cannot determine the response of communities to their slogans, neologisms, etc. It is very much asystematic, and the best that organisations can hope for is that they have sufficient inputs from the wild world of external communities to be attentive to communities think of them. In this sense, the hopes of Checkland that somehow institutional systems will transform themselves from procedural to meaning-generating bodies is implausible.


Taking the divergent papers of Checkland and Paul a common theme was noted as both attempted to find a foundation on which to base Information Systems as a discipline and research project. Checkland's approach was to apply philosophical considerations to the history of IS and in particular note the transformation of the engineering and biological perspectives of the 1950s and 1960s to the Soft Systems Methodology of the 1970s and 1980s with the possibility of institutional transformation aided by changes in technological devices. In contrast, Paul noted difficulties of identity within IS as it crossed disciplinary boundaries and lacked a referential ability to define itself in distinction to other fields of inquiry.

Both these papers contribute to an ongoing debate on the nature and function of IS. A contribution is made here using contemporary pragmatic and linguistic philosophy with the identification that the challenges confronting IS are actually required for the existence of IS. As long as there is data that is stored in a structured manner as information and that that information is utilised by institutions, then it is inevitable that IS will be crossing the boundaries of instrumental and social technologies. Likewise, as long meaning is generated intersubjectively then there can be no way that an external body can enforce and define the interpretation of shared symbolic values.

By way of conclusion, it must be said that formal pragmatics is obviously not just applicable to IS. As a theory that looks at whether statements of affairs are even verifiable in a pragmatic sense it must incorporate the entirety of the knowledge of our species; not in the content of course, but rather in the categorisation of what sort of statements are possible in the first place. Certainly, there is many things in the universe which we do not know yet, but at least formal pragmatics provides the tools of what sort of questions can be asked, and when propositions are made, whether or not that content seeks verification of truth, justice, or beauty. There are, perhaps further questions outside these areas of verification, but for them, perhaps it is best to refer to two aphorisms of the early Wittgenstein (1922). "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world"; "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


Abraham, T., Beath, C., Bullen, C., Gallagher, K., Goles, T., Kaiser, K., and Simon, J. (2006) IT Workforce Trends: Implications For IS Programs, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, (17)50, p. 1147-1170

Annabi, H., McGann, Sean T., (2015), MIS-Understood: A Longitudinal Analysis of MIS Major Misconceptions, Proceedings of SIGED: IAIM Conference 2015

Apel, Karl-Otto, (1980), (trans. Glyn Adey, David Frisby), Towards a Transformation of Philosophy, Routledge and Kegal Paul, FP 1972

Benamati, J. H., Ozdemir, Z. D., and Smith, H. J. (2010), Aligning Undergraduate IS Curricula with Industry Needs, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, (53)3, p. 152-156

Banville, C., Landry, M., (1989) Can the Field of MIS be Disciplined?, Communications of the ACM, 32 (1), p48-60

Checkland, P.B., (1988) Information Systems and Systems Thinking: Time to Unite?, International Journal of Information Management, 8, p239-248

George, J. F., Valacich, J. S., and Valor, J. (2005), Does Information Systems Still Matter? Lessons for a Maturing Discipline, Communications of the Association for Information Systems (16)8, pp. 219-232

Habermas, J., The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society, Beacon Press, 1984 [FP 1981]

Firth, D., King, J., Koch, H., Looney, C. A., Pavlou, P., and Trauth, E. M. (2011), Addressing the Credibility Crisis in IS, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, (28)13, p. 199-212

Paul, Ray J., (2007), Challenges to information systems: time to change, European Journal of Information Systems, 16, p193-195

Pika, Simone., Wilkinson, Ray, Kendrik, Kobin H., Vernes, Sonja C., (2018), Taking turns: bridging the gap between human and animal communication, Proceeedings of the Royal Society B, 285(1880)

Rowley, Jennifer (2007). The wisdom hierarchy: representations of the DIKW hierarchy. Journal of Information and Communication Science. 33 (2): p163–180.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922), (trans. Frank P. Ramsey and Charles Kay Ogden), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Kegan Paul, FP 1921

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953), (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe), Philosophical Investigations, Macmillan Publishing Company.