Introduction: The Emergence of Information Technology as a Strategic Issue
Although information systems of some form or another have been around since the beginning of time, information technology (IT) is a relative newcomer to the scene. The facilities provided by such technology have had a major impact on individuals, organizations and society. There are few companies that can afford the luxury of ignoring IT and few individuals who would prefer to be without it... despite its occasional frustrations and the fears it sometimes invokes.
An organization may regard IT as a 'necessary evil', something that is needed in order to stay in business, while others may see it as a major source of strategic opportunity, seeking proactively to identify how IT-based information systems can help them gain a competitive edge. Regardless of the stance taken, once an organization embarks on an investment of this kind there is little opportunity for turning back.
As IT has become more powerful and relatively cheaper, its use has spread throughout organizations at a rapid rate. Different levels in the management hierarchy are now using IT where once its sole domain was at the operational level. The aim now is not only to improve efficiency but also to improve business effectiveness and to manage organizations more strategically. As the managerial tasks become more complex, so the nature of the required information systems (IS) changes - from structured, routinized support to ad hoc, unstructured, complex enquiries at the highest levels of management.
IT, however, not only has the potential to change the way an organization works but also the very nature of its business (see, for example, Galliers and Baets, 1998). Through the use of IT to support the introduction of electronic markets, buying and selling can be carried out in a fraction of the time, disrupting the conventional marketing and distribution channels (Malone et al., 1989; Holland, 1998). Electronic data interchange (EDI) not only speeds up transactions but allows subscribers to be confident in the accuracy of information being received from suppliers/buyers and to reap the benefits of cost reductions through automated reordering processes. On a more strategic level, information may be passed from an organization to its suppliers or customers in order to gain or provide a better service (Cash, 1985). Providing a better service to its customers than its competitors may provide the differentiation required to stay ahead of the competition in the short term. Continual improvements to the service may enable the organization to gain a longer-term advantage and remain ahead.
The rapid change in IT causes an already uncertain business environment to be even more unpredictable. Organizations' ability to identify the relevant information needed to make important decisions is crucial, since the access to data used to generate information for decision making is no longer restricted by the manual systems of the organization. IT can record, synthesize, analyse and disseminate information quicker than at any other time in history. Data can be collected from different parts of the company and its external environment and brought together to provide relevant, timely, concise and precise information at all levels of the organization to help it become more efficient, effective and competitive.
Information can now be delivered to the right people at the right time, thus enabling well-informed decisions to be made. Previously, due to the limited information-gathering capability of organizations, decision makers could seldom rely on up-to-date information but instead made important decisions based on past results and their own experiene. This no longer needs to be the case. With the right technology in place to collect the necessary data automatically, up-to-date information can be accessed whenever the need arises. This is the informating quality of IT about which Zuboff (1988) writes so eloquently.
With the use of IT, as with most things, comes the possibility of abuse. Data integrity and security is of prime importance to ensure validity and privacy of the information being held. Managing the information involves identifying what should be kept, how it should be organized, where it should be held and who should have access to it. The quality of this management will dictate the quality of the decisions being taken and ultimately the organization's survival.
With the growth in the usage of IT to support information provision within organizations, the political nature of information has come into sharper focus. Gatekeepers of information are powerful people; they can decide when and if to convey vital information, and to whom. They are likely to be either highly respected, or despised for the power that they have at their fingertips.
Such gatekeepers have traditionally been middle managers in organizations. Their role has been to facilitate the flow of information between higher and lower levels of management. With the introduction of IT such information can now be readily accessed by those who need it (if the right ГГ infrastructure is in place) at any time. It is not surprising then that there is resistance to the introduction of IT when it has the potential of changing the balance of power within organizations. Unless the loss in power, through the freeing up of information, is substituted by something of equal or more value to the individuals concerned then IT implementations may well be subject to considerable obstruction.
Developments in IT have caused revolutionary changes not only for individual organizations but for society in general. In order to understand the situation we now find ourselves in with respect to IT, it is as well to reflect on their developments. This is the subject matter of Chapter 1. Written by Somogyi and Galliers, it describes how the role of IT has changed in business and how organizations have reacted to this change. They attempt, retrospectively, to identify major transition points in organizations' usage of IT in order to provide a chronicle of events, placing today's developments in a historical context. The chapter charts the evolution of the technology itself, the types of application used by organizations, the role of the DP/IS function and the change in the methods of system development. Such histories are not merely academic exercises, they can serve as a foundation for future progress, allowing organizations to avoid past mistakes and to build on their successes. A postscript has been added in order to bring the original article up to date, listing a number of key applications that have appeared over the past decade or so.
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