T306 Block 2: Activity 4

How would you distinguish Information Technology from Information Systems?

I’m guessing that most people wouldn’t think that there’s much – or any – difference at all. They may be right, but I would probably argue that ISs are made up of various bits of IT equipment. An IS is a more holistic approach to IT, maybe. I think most people’s idea of IT is that of computing but the communicating of data/information is part of that too.

So, perhaps they are different but very similar. Maybe…

T306 Block 2: Activity 3

What does an Information System mean to you?

An Information System, to me at least, is a system for collecting and distributing information. These systems usually use some form of computing and there is normally some “doing” going on in there too, such as calculating with numbers or producing documentation.

These ISs normally have a stated purpose or purposes and intended clients. They can be extremely large scale – perhaps with millions of potential clients – or just a few, but they are always used to do something useful to someone, somewhere.

ISs are also held together with some form of communications technology (e.g. Ethernet) and can be distributed over large geographical areas.

T306 Block 2: SAQ 1

Speculate on the reasons why there may not be learning about how to
avoid failure by either the purchasers or suppliers of large Information
Systems.

Perhaps these corporations don’t want to admit to making mistakes in the first place. Failure is always an option and the reasons for these failures can be quite complex so perhaps they don’t even know why they’ve failed?

Creating large ISs is very expensive and firms have tended to underestimate how much they cost to produce. I’m sat in an office as part of the test team for a fairly complex system. There must be fifty people in here and that’s not the whole team. Large, complex systems don’t just cost millions of pounds to produce – they can cost hundreds of millions. Many companies fear spending that much money on a system and so IS providers trying and give them an overly optimistic quote, costs escalate and there’s egg on faces all around.

The costs of these things means that they tend to be implemented over many years and don’t happen within a company very frequently. Maybe there’s always different people the second time around? You’d think that the IS providers would learn, though. Do they not have lessons learned sessions after a project or provide the opportunity for single or double loop learning?

T306 Block 2: Activity 2

Recall a failure in your life and your reactions to it

Which one to choose? So many failures…

OK, so I’ll use something recent, something that I would term a failure, but is more a partial failure: my inability to get my first assignment in on time.

I felt immensely disappointed that I wasn’t able to find enough time to go through the block activities and that I needed a further two weeks to get it done. I’m also rather worried about the workload. I have two modules running concurrently and I’m having to cut corners on both courses in order to meet the mandated time-scales. There are only so many hours in the day and I’m finding this quite difficult to organise, but I’m still enjoying the learning experience overall.

My missed goal made me quite stressed, and this gave me some physical symptoms. Nothing serious, but I’d rather I didn’t feel so stressed about it. Some stress is good for you but I had a bit too much for a while there, and I’m anticipating some very busy periods coming up in June (when I have my M257 exam) and in September/October when my project needs to be submitted.

I did take on board some systems concepts in order to work through this problem. I had to reflect on what I wanted out of the course and modify my expectations as a result. I’d really wanted to get through all the activities and provide a strong assignment but this wasn’t possible, so I resolved to do what I could and eventually submitted a less than perfect but acceptable paper. This is something that my tutor covered in our recent tutorial – if we don’t have time to do everything we want to do then we have to reduce the output quality of our work. It’s a good pragmatic solution. I want to do better but I can only spend so many hours a week going over the material.

TMA02, I suspect, will also be less than perfect as a result. Only two weeks or so to go before I have to hand that in, and I’m only on activity 2!

T306 Block 2: Activity 1

What is your position regarding Information Systems?

This activity seems to be getting me to declare my perspective on Information Systems before we head into analysis the rest of the block. Well, I work with Information Systems for a living, so I guess I’m an active stakeholder in such things. I test software and this software is generally part of a larger system.

My current role is testing an application which is used to carry out complex tasks for a large NGO. It’s a government-sponsored contract and the Information System my company has created for the NGO is quite complex, involving about a dozen or so third-party applications (Oracle, .NET, that sort of thing) and a large server farm. There are terrabytes of information involved and complex financial rules. It’s a mess (in the systems thinking sense), although parts of it are well understood by various system stakeholders even though very few people can view it as a whole.

I am very comfortable working with computers and I think I have a good affinity in the general IT area. I’m weaker at certain specifics (I wouldn’t say I’m an IT expert) but I’m a geek and I like geeky things. Information Systems are constructs that I know a bit about and something that I’d like to know a lot better.

The course notes mention a whole range of IS disasters that have affected various large companies (British Gas, Scottish Power etc) and I am not at all surprised that these things happened. Maybe those planning these large ISs failed to think holistically or gave hopelessly optimistic cost/time estimations? Whatever happened, I am looking forward to learning more about ISs is general and systems thinking concepts relating to them specifically.

T306 Block 1: summary

Well, I’ve submitted TMA01 but I’m really not happy with it. It was too short, rushed and missing quite a bit of useful content. The reasons for this inadequacy are multifarious, but I would have really liked to have had a good crack at it rather than the rushed mess that eventually emerged.

It was also two weeks late and I need to hand in TMA02 on the 11th April. This gives me 2 and a half weeks to get through an enormous amount of work. This isn’t going to happen at all, so I’m going to have to scale back my approach to the next block. I’m going to spend a week or so going through as many activities as I can before taking the more practical approach of working towards finding the relevant material that I need to answer the questions.

This isn’t really what I want to do and will give me a much reduced coverage of the course materials. It’s also a shame because Block 2 is based on an area in which I have a lot of personal interest – Information Systems. Unfortunately, I cannot really extend the next assignment because I also have one to hand in for M257 in May and I’ll need quite a bit of time to get that one ready too.

Too much work and too little time to do it in. I shall do what is necessary and practicable.

Block 1 was also skimmed over quite a bit in the end. There’s some really interesting concepts in there and I’ll have to go back over that (and all the other blocks 2) once the first five assignments are in and I’m working towards my project. I don’t know what my project will be yet but I’ll be choosing something of interest to myself and hopefully nothing too complex. I do need enough complexity to demonstrate I understand the course concepts but I need to avoid something that I can’t possible approach sensibly in the ten weeks I’ll have to do it.

Onwards with Block 2, then.

T306 Block 1: Activity 39

Connecting with a history in your own context.

At the beginning of this part of the block, I invited you to consider one of your own role(s) and situation(s) that could be kept in mind as you worked through the part. With this in mind, are you able to think of a practice that is carried out unquestioningly? Are you able to engage in any elementary archaeology to uncover some of the history of this practice?

One easy thing I can think of is the practice of washing your hands after going for a pee. I imagine that most of us think that this is a good thing. I certainly do. I certainly don’t want to be accidentally inserting certain fluids into my mouth, or passing them onto other people. There are germs involved.

I do wonder, though, that we might be creating weakened immune systems as a result of this practice. Are we too obsessed with cleaning everything that our bodies aren’t exposed as frequently to immune system-boosting bacteria?

I don’t really have time to “engage in any elementary archaeology” with this, but it’s certainly become something that you’re told to do from an early age. It’s to stop the spread of infection, I get that, and I’m still going to wash my hands after using the toilet like I always have done.

T306 Block 1: Activity 38

Responding to the distinctions about the observer.

Find a way of expressing your emotional and rational responses to the material in Box 1 about the observer.

The “Box 1″ material is reproduced below:

How the observer has come into focus

Cybernetics, although often applied to the control of machines, has long been one of the foundations of thought about human communication, its central notion being circularity. Cybernetics ‘arises when effectors, say a motor, an engine, our muscles, etc., are connected to a sensory organ which, in turn, acts with its signals upon the effectors. It is this circular organization which sets cybernetic systems apart from others that are not so organized’ (von Foerster, 1992). In first-order cybernetics it was the idea of feedback control which mainly occupied the practitioners, but in time the question ‘what controls the controller’ returned to view (Glanville 1995a,b) and the property of circularity became the focus of attention once again.

Second-order cybernetics is a theory of the observer rather than what is being observed. Heinz von Foerster’s phrase, ‘the cybernetics of cybernetics’ was apparently first used by him in the early 1960s as the title of Margaret Mead’s opening speech at the first meeting of the American Cybernetics Society when she had not provided written notes for the Proceedings. [The understandings which have arisen from second-order cybernetics...] requires a loosening of our grip on the supposedly certain knowledge that is acquired objectively, about a reality existing independently of us, and a willingness to consider the constructivist idea (see Mahoney, 1988) that we each construct our own version of reality in the course of our living together. The virtue of objectivity was that the properties of the observer should be separate from the description of what is being observed. This led to what von Foerster (1992) called the Pontius Pilate attitude of abrogating responsibility because the observer is an innocent bystander who can claim he or she had no choice. The alternative attitude, which seems to be less popular today, is to own a personal preference for one among various alternatives.’

(Fell and Russell, 2000)

I get the first paragraph. I’ve been a telecoms engineer in the past and feedback loops are at the heart of any radio system. I’ve also covered lots of control diagrams during my T214 studies and I understand how systems can control themselves using feedback from some output or other.

The second paragraph, however…

Clearly, we can all observe the same thing and come up with different ideas about what we’ve seen. I’ve played at plenty of brass band contests and it’s a rare day that everyone agrees with the awarding of the winning band. We might have heard the same notes but there’s always a subjective element to an observation, and this relates to our perspectives and worldviews. We see, read or hear something and our past colours the response.

I’m not entirely sure what this activity is trying to get to me. I agree that everyone’s objectivity is only totally valid to themselves. Millions of us may have very similar ideas about something but we all do have very slightly emotional responses to what we see due to our worldviews. This is an unconscious response and we need to know that it’s there so that we can work with it.

I think that science does at least try and factor this out from its results, although as scientists are all people with their individual subjective biases this is not always totally successful. The peer-review process should reveal a lot of these biases and make the work more “pure”.

I may need to revisit this exercise once I’ve read a bit further on.

T306 Block 1: Activity 37

When you talk about experience what do you mean?

Describe what was, for you, a new experience.

Experiences are circumstances that I’ve been through that I’ve remembered. They shape my perspectives and, eventually, my worldview. They are things that I may remember in the future during new experiences, and these prior experiences may shape how I act in the new ones.

I was in the RAF for 12 years and part of that time was spent with a tactical unit in Kuwait. I wasn’t running around in the desert or anything (thankfully!) but I did get to maintain the communications systems at the main airbase there. I’d seen the bombing of Iraq on the television – like everyone else – but had no direct experience of war until I got to Kuwait.

I only got to see some of the aftermath in Kuwait. The airbase had several reinforced concrete aircraft shelters and each of these had been bombed by the allies during the first gulf war. The concrete in these things was several meters thick and these bombs had somehow penetrated all the way through, no doubt destroying everything underneath. I’ve stood on top of one of these shelters and looked down the massive hole left by these bombs. The amount of energy released in these impacts must have been utterly immense.

You really don’t get an idea of how much damage can be done by modern weapons until you’ve seen it yourself. The television makes it look terrifying but you get a feel for how terrible when you can touch the results.

There were other war relics visible in the squash courts. These were used for executions by the Iraqis and the bullet holes were still there. The pragmatism of the British military meant that there was a special “let” rule so that balls ricocheting out of one of these holes would be replayed.

T306 Block 1: Activity 35

I’m not entirely sure where this one is going but here we go. The right column will be filled in later.

*Update* – after reading further down the course materials here is the right column material too. I’ve used definitions more suited to systems thinking that the generic meanings of the verbs. (updated 14/3/2012)

Verb

How I understand these activities now

How my understanding has/has not changed

Become aware of …

To start understanding or be aware of the existence of something Understanding my own perspectives and worldview, so that I can take these into account when experiencing something

Review …

To look back at something and try and see if there are errors are ways of improvement Action learning – experience, thinking, decision action and back to experience again (and so forth). Iterate to find emergent properties

Appreciate …

To be thankful or be understanding of something Maybe related to the first one – knowing where I’ve come from and considering the history or traditions of situations in order to use systems practice to best effect

Distinguish …

To tell apart Understanding the difference between things, maybe between systemic and systematic thinking

Consider ….

To take an idea and think about doing something with it Don’t know about this one