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Frozen in Time and deprived of data

Information is the basis for all decisions. One of the dilemmas facing today’s manager is that on the one hand they seem to be suffering from information overload, yet on other hand, they often complain about shortage of information needed to make vital decisions.
Many large organisations are caught in a time-warp; they seem to be continually rotating at an operational (“Automation” era) level. They cannot break away from the operational level by climbing the information system and information utilisation ladder to the tactical and strategic stages. In such a scenario Information Systems are primarily used as administrative tools rather than strategic devices.

Synopsis

There is a very close relationship between Information Systems and Information Utilisation, since the latter is dependent on the information generated by the former. One can reasonably state that from an Information Technology point of view, many organisations do have state-of-the-art technology. However, from an Information Systems and Information Utilisation point of view, many organisations have a long way to go before they can be considered to be state-of-the-art in this domain.

I am often asked how Malta, particularly Government, rates in the application and usage of ICT. This is not a simple question to answer. There are a number of aspects that need to be considered when contemplating an answer to such an innocent question. What exactly are we rating? Are we rating the Information Technology facilities? Are we rating the Information Systems? Are we rating the Information Utilisation aspect?

Ever since the mid sixties has terminology used within the Information Technology industry been confusing. Hence, we need to know exactly what we are discussing. In general terms, Information Technology refers to the computer hardware (including communications equipment and the physical network) and operating systems (including the network management systems). Information Systems mainly refer to the management information systems or more precisely the application systems. Some examples of information systems include the accounting system, human resource management system, health information system, and so on. Hence, the information systems are basically the organisational administrative systems.

Finally, Information Utilisation refers to the exploitation of the information that is generated by the information systems for decision making purposes. As one may appreciate there is a very close relationship between Information Systems and Information Utilisation, since the latter is dependent on the information generated by the former.
Now that the terminology is somewhat clearer, an important issue that needs to be addressed later in this article is the responsibility for the promotion, continual enhancement and applicability of the three aspects defined above. The objective of this article is to discuss a number of pertinent issues, and highlight that the Information Utilisation aspect appears to be an orphan and is continually being neglected by the various strata of management.

THE APPLICATION AND USAGE OF ICT

Generally, in terms of Information Technology (using the previously mentioned definition), there is very little doubt that most large organisations, particularly Government, have state-of-the-art computer hardware and operating systems. The major reason for this is that Information Technology is easily obtainable, is relatively inexpensive and is unilaterally applicable across the organisation. Furthermore, Information Technology is constantly being enhanced by information technology manufacturers and plays a vital role in the management and administration of organisations. In other words, if organisations do not adequately invest in Information Technology they are simply left behind at the most basic management level.      

It becomes a lot more difficult when addressing the utilisation status of Information Systems because the issue is closely related to the strata of management; different levels of management. Hence, an Operations Manager has different roles and is confronted with decision types that are distinct when compared with the CEO/Chairperson of the organisation. The former has an operations function whilst the latter has a strategic one.
Decisions are made by different grades of people within an organisation. Furthermore, these different grades of people require different types of information systems and information depending on the type of decisions they make. Moreover, the size of the organisation determines the level of overlap of the decision types undertaken by an individual. For instance, a manager working in a very small organisation may be required to make strategic, tactical and operations decisions at any particular point in time.  

Traditionally, Information Systems were specifically aimed at the operations level. The objectives were to process data faster and produce the various reports and other outputs cheaply and quickly. This was the era of “Automation”. The 1960s were mainly concerned with operational management to resolve administrative concerns such as increasing productivity at a lower cost. The 1970s and 1980s were related to the “Informational” era, which was mainly concerned with tactical management, utilising information to ensure that the organisation was in step with the strategic objectives. The 1990s and the 2000s were related to the “Transformational” era, which is mainly concerned with using information for making strategic decisions and gaining competitive advantage.

However, many large organisations are caught in a time-warp. They seem to be continually rotating at an operational (“Automation” era) level. Some are operating state-of-the-art applications, while others have a number of obsolete information systems. These organisations may have the latest e-Commerce, m-Commerce, e-Government and m-Government systems. But when everything is taken into account, these organisations are still considered to be focused on operational management. They cannot break away from the operational level by climbing the information system and information utilisation ladder to the tactical and strategic stages. In such a scenario Information Systems are primarily used as administrative tools rather than strategic devices.

As previously stated, the Information Utilisation aspect is very closely related to the Information Systems exploitation. A lack of tactical and strategic information system means a lack of information utilisation at these levels. One aspect depends on the other.

Therefore, generally one can reasonably state that from an Information Technology point of view, many organisations do have state-of-the-art technology. However, from an Information Systems and Information Utilisation point of view, many organisations have a long way to go before they can be considered to be state-of-the-art in this domain.   

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?

In 2012, Gartner Executive Programs conducted a global Chief Information Officer (CIO) survey and received responses from 2,053 CIOs from forty one countries and thirty six industries. Gartner reported that survey results indicated that analytics and business intelligence were first and second respectively in the top ten technology priorities for CIOs for 2013. The others included (in order of priority) mobile technologies, cloud computing, collaboration technologies, legacy modernisation, IT management, customer relationship management, virtualisation, security, and enterprise resource planning.

The issue is: Who is responsible for climbing the Information Systems and Information Utilisation ladder? Is it the IT/IS technical professional/organisation or the User (organisational management). In my opinion the CIO/IT Organisation has the responsibility to provide the technical tools and associated systems at the tactical and strategic level and not just focus on the operational level. On the other hand, the User must be trained and be receptive to use analytics and business intelligence for decision making purposes.
In other words, it is the User who must recognise that the organisation has a tremendous wealth of information that is generated by the operational Information Systems and that this information may be utilised for decision making purposes at a tactical and strategic levels (besides the operational level). Therefore, the responsibility for climbing the Information Systems and Information Utilisation ladder is jointly owned by the technical professional (CIO/IT Organisation) and the User (Management). The former must make the tools (such as Data Mining, Decision Support Systems, Executive Information Systems and other statistical tools) available and encourage their usage, whilst the latter must either recruit (or/and develop) management professionals who are competent in building business models and specifically in the analysis and interpretation of information. It is stressed that building business models and specifically analysing and interpreting information is a User (management) function.

EDUCATION SYSTEM

Another issue is whether the education system has the potential to develop graduates with the appropriate skills related to building business models and specifically analysing and interpreting information. The answer to this question is definitely yes. The University of Malta, Department of Statistics has specific courses related to Statistics and Operations Research, where students may combine these studies with Mathematics, Banking and Finance, and other business disciplines.

The major concern here is whether the Industry, that is those that employ; appreciate the professionals that are completing such courses. It seems that a majority of these professionals are being recruited by the e-Gaming industry and NSO. Whilst this is not a bad thing, one would like to see a more general acceptance of these professionals across all industries, particularly in the management of the Public Service (throughout all Ministries) and other large enterprises.

CONCLUSION

Whilst having state-of-the-art Information Technology is to be applauded, it is equally if not more important, to have state-of-the-art Information Systems and Information Utilisation applications. Many entities (including numerous Governmental organisations) are caught in an endless IT development cycle that focuses on the operational aspects.

Operational information systems are a must because it is these systems that directly serve the client and generate the vast amount of information that organisations currently hold. However, organisations must strive to break away from just having traditional operational systems and push towards introducing information systems that address tactical and strategic management issues. Furthermore, management must recognise that information is a corporate asset, and like any other corporate asset, it must be seriously utilised. Management must also recognise that the benefits that are generated from investing in state-of-the-art information decision systems far outweigh their cost.

Obviously, a major concern is having qualified professional managers that are competent in the use of analytical and business intelligence tools, such as data mining capabilities and sophisticated statistical analysis. However, such professionals (admittedly not in large numbers) do exist and are being fostered by the University of Malta (Statistics Department) but executive organisational managers must appreciate these talents. It is important to note that the demand for such professionals across the industry will influence the supply.

Last modified onThursday, 21 August 2014 09:10
Emanuel Camilleri

Dr. Emanuel Camilleri occupies the post of Director General (Strategy and Operations Support), Ministry of Finance. Emanuel has extensive local and overseas experience in information management applications, and holds academic qualifications in information management, accountancy, engineering and business management.

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