The Components of Information Systems
Many students understand that an information system has something to do with databases or spreadsheets. Others mention computers and e-commerce. And they are all right, at least in part: information systems are made up of different components that work together to provide value to an organization.
The first way I describe information systems to students is to tell them that they are made up of five components: hardware, software, data, people, and process. The first three, hardware, software, data, fitting under the category technology, are generally what most students think of when asked to define information systems. But the last two, people and process, are really what separate the idea of information systems from more technical fields, such as computer science. In order to fully understand information systems, students must understand how all of these components work together to bring value to an organization.
Technical Components of Information Systems
Technology can be thought of as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. From the invention of the wheel to the harnessing of electricity for artificial lighting, technology is a part of our lives in so many ways that we tend to take it for granted. As discussed before, the first three components of information systems – hardware, software, and data – all fall under the category of technology. Each of these will get its own chapter and a much lengthier discussion, but we will take a moment here to introduce them so we can get a full understanding of an information system.
The first component is hardware of an information system. Hardware is the part of an information system you can touch – the physical components of the technology. Computers, keyboards, disk drives, iPads, and flash drives are all examples of information systems hardware. We will spend some time going over these components in future chapters. Figure 3.1 displays internal parts on a computer.
Software, the second component of an information system, is a set of instructions that tells the hardware what to do. Software is not tangible – it cannot be touched. When programmers create software programs, what they are really doing is simply typing out lists of instructions telling the hardware what to do. There are several categories of software, with the two main categories being operating-system software, which makes the hardware usable, and application software, which does something useful. Examples of operating systems include Microsoft Windows on a personal computer and Google’s Android on a mobile phone. Examples of application software are Microsoft Excel and Angry Birds.
Below is a diagram showing how the user interacts with application software on a typical desktop computer. The application software layer interfaces with the operating system, which in turn communicates with the hardware. The arrows indicate information flow.
The third component is data. You can think of data as a collection of facts. For example, your street address, the city you live in, and your phone number are all pieces of data. Like software, data is also intangible. By themselves, pieces of data are not really very useful. But aggregated, indexed, and organized together into a database, data can become a powerful tool for businesses. In fact, all of the definitions presented at the beginning of this chapter focused on how information systems manage data. Organizations collect all kinds of data and use it to make decisions. These decisions can then be analyzed as to their effectiveness and the organization can be improved.
Networking Communication: A Fourth Technology Piece?
Besides the components of hardware, software, and data, which have long been considered the core technology of information systems, it has been suggested that one other component should be added: communication. An information system can exist without the ability to communicate – the first personal computers were stand-alone machines that did not access the Internet. However, in today’s hyper-connected world, it is an extremely rare computer that does not connect to another device or to a network. Technically, the networking communication component is made up of hardware and software, but it is such a core feature of today’s information systems that it has become its own category.
Non-Technical Components of Information Systems
When thinking about information systems, it is easy to get focused on the technology components and forget that we must look beyond these tools to fully understand how they integrate into an organization. A focus on the people involved in information systems is the fourth component. From the front-line help-desk workers to systems analysts, to programmers, all the way up to the chief information officer (CIO), the people involved with information systems are an essential element that must not be overlooked.
The last component of information systems is process. We have all heard the term process before, but what exactly does it mean? A process is a series of steps undertaken to achieve a desired outcome or goal. Processes are something that businesses go through every day in order to accomplish their mission. The better their processes, the more effective the business. Some businesses see their processes as a strategy for achieving competitive advantage. A process that achieves its goal in a unique way can set a company apart. A process that eliminates costs can allow a company to lower its prices (or retain more profit).
The simplest way to document a process is to simply create a list. The list shows each step in the process; each step can be checked off upon completion. For example, a simple process, such as how to create an account on eBay, might look like this:
Go to ebay.com.
Click on “register.”
Enter your contact information in the “Tell us about you” box.
Choose your user ID and password.
For processes that are not so straightforward, documenting the process as a checklist may not be sufficient. For example, here is the process for determining if an article for a term needs to be added to Wikipedia:
Search Wikipedia to determine if the term already exists.
If the term is found, then an article is already written, so you must think of another term. Go to 1.
If the term is not found, then look to see if there is a related term.
If there is a related term, then create a redirect.
If there is not a related term, then create a new article.
This procedure is relatively simple – in fact, it has the same number of steps as the previous example – but because it has some decision points, it is more difficult to track with as a simple list.
Information systems are becoming more and more integrated with organizational processes, bringing more productivity and better control to those processes. But simply automating activities using technology is not enough – businesses looking to effectively utilize information systems do more. Using technology to manage and improve processes, both within a company and externally with suppliers and customers is the ultimate goal. Technology buzzwords such as “business process reengineering,” “business process management,” and “enterprise resource planning” all have to do with the continued improvement of these business procedures and the integration of technology with them. Businesses hoping to gain an advantage over their competitors are highly focused on this component of information systems.