Forum on business & economics

Forum on business & economicsMIS Conceptions & Misconceptions The strategic and operational importance of information technologies in modern organizations increased dramatically in the last half of the twentieth century, and this expansion is continuing apace into the twenty-first. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the Management Information Systems (MIS) major is a very popular one among students at most business schools. For example, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute's Pamplin College of Business, MIS enrollment climbed 216 percent during the decade of the 1990s. Similarly, at the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, MIS enrollments increased 342 percent (ComputerWorld, 7/12/00). Enrollments in MIS continue to grow explosively, often requiring that admission be capped to prevent over-subscription at many universities. MIS degree programs are now often among the largest in colleges of business across the country and around the world.


On a personal level, I have had a long and varied career working as a technician, manager, and executive with major U.S. corporations for twenty-five years, followed by another fifteen years of teaching graduate and undergraduate coursework in MIS at university colleges of business. During that time, I have never ceased to be amazed at the general lack of understanding and the resulting confusion about what the academic field of MIS entails. Many students, for example, and even some faculty view MIS as another name for programming and computer science. Others view it as the study of the management of in formation technologies, such as computers, databases, and networks and the people who build and operate them. Professor Gordon Davis (of the University of Minnesota), an intellectual guiding light in the field of MIS since its inception, once told me that, if MIS is anything, it is a branch of the field of organizational behavior. I doubt that he actually meant that literally, but his definition illustrates the ambiguities that have perplexed this field of study from its beginning.

What gives rise to these differing, often inconsistent perceptions? True, MIS is a relatively new field of academic endeavor (maybe forty years old). And, true, it is a field that constantly morphs and evolves as new computing and networking technologies are introduced and assimilated into the information systems of businesses and as new insights are gained about managing these complex technologies in modern organizations. But the turmoil in MIS is more than that. A fundamental ambiguity runs through the field and leaves many uncertain about what the field involves. My objective here is to try to alleviate some of these uncertainties.


The study of MIS evolved in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It derived from a need to better understand the use of computers in organizations, the objective being to improve the handling and use of information and to thereby improve organizational decision-making. At that time, MIS was a relatively arcane discipline dealing mostly with insignificant "back office" operations in organizations. Computerizing the accounting and payroll functions was certainly an important activity designed to achieve basic efficiencies, but the ultimate success or failure of organizations was far removed from the success or failure of such an effort.

In the 1980s, two revolutionary changes occurred that would have profound effects on MIS and the MIS curriculum. The first was the personal computer revolution, in which small, cheap computers became an integral part of every organization. The second was the rise to prominence of digital networking architectures to seamlessly interconnect computers of all sizes and to make the overall systems created more effective in meeting organizational needs. Both of these developments in information technology have become integral parts of the MIS research and curriculum puzzles.

More recently, the 1990s have been all about the Internet, client/server architectures, and the World Wide Web. Computing and networking today are ubiquitous, reaching every nook and cranny and providing critical support for decision-making at all levels of modern organizations. It Is no longer possible to say that the destinies of business and governmental organizations are independent from their successes or failures in information technology.


These changes over a thirty-year period have been enormous, and they have deeply affected the focus and curriculum of MIS as an academic discipline. As the body of knowledge surrounding MIS has grown through the years and the underlying technologies have evolved, the field has become richer and more complex at the same time. For example, fifteen years ago an understanding of networking technologies was of minor importance in the overall curriculum, while today it is central. The same thing was true of database architectures before that. So, as the MIS field has evolved to include first programming, then database, then networking, as key underlying technologies, it has shifted in its focus and content. While MIS has always been about managing information resources to understand organizational information requirements and then to develop efficient and effective solutions, the systems used in this effort have become increasingly more diverse and complex over time. And with technologies such as the wireless Internet and optical computing on the horizon, there is no reason to assume that this rate of change will abate any time soon.

It has not helped people's understanding of MIS that its business counterpart changes its name periodically, about every decade. It was first called "Electronic Data Processing," or sometimes just "Data Processing." Then the term "Information Systems" or "Computer Information Systems" came into vogue. After that, most organizations began calling it "Management Information Systems," which both derived from and reinforced the academic name for the field. And lately, it is simply known as "Information Technology," this to emphasize the recent ascendance of networking architectures within the MIS pantheon.

Of course, one key aspect of MIS that does not change so dramatically is the basic systems-analysis and problem-solving expertise that is so fundamental to this field. In addition to such analytical skills, MIS deals with a series of complex organizational factors that have little to do with the specific technologies involved. For example, understanding a firm's core business dimensions and its organizational power structure is often basic to achieving MIS project success. So too are key requirements to evaluate information technology products and to assess potential implementation opportunities and risks. All of these issues greatly complicate the role of the MIS practitioner and influence the curriculum of MIS in universities accordingly.


MIS is really not "computer science" by another name. The MIS degree is a business degree. The curriculum includes a standard college of business core with courses such as basic management, economics, accounting, logistics, and marketing, to name a few. Added to the business core courses are basic background courses focusing on competencies such as computer programming, database administration, telecommunications, and management of information resources. A student can subsequently specialize further in any of these areas by taking additional coursework to develop the requisite level of understanding for pursuing a specific career in this field.

The field of MIS is really a hybrid of many fields. A person with a degree in MIS has learned about both the business of providing information technology services to organizations and the technological underpinnings necessary to do this properly. This person speaks both the languages of business and the languages of the various technologies involved. Standing on the boundary between the business and technology groups of the organization, this person is in a perfect position to translate between the two camps and to help fulfill the needs of the organization with efficient and effective technical systems. No wonder these people are so highly sought after.


The growth in enrollments in MIS over the past few years has been tremendous. Nonetheless, too often a basic misconception exists about what the MIS practitioner actually does in real organizations. Students are drawn to the major by the promise of big salaries and by the Internet hype, among other things, and often do not know what they are getting into. Just as problematic are the students with excellent analytical and organizational skills who avoid MIS because they are not interested in becoming "computer programmers." Opportunities are missed on all sides.