T306 Block 2: result

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it but I achieved a somewhat miraculous 93% for TMA02, an enormous improvement on the 70% I got for TMA01. I would have been happy with another 70% but it looks like I happened to hit on quite a few more of the marking points for this assignment.

I’m surprised (and pleased!) about this because I didn’t feel that I was being particularly systemic with my answers. I used the soft systems method for my analysis, but this provides a systematic approach – complete with stages and flowcharts – and I didn’t really come up with any emergent properties. What I did do was constantly look back at previous stages and state in my answers that I was attempting to look from different perspectives. I applied the method well and at least gave an impression of a systemic approach.

My tutor gave me some great feedback too. I tend to try and look at the whole system/problem rather than try and dig into it a bit, and while the “helicopter view” of a situation is helpful I do need to try alternative systems definitions to extract hidden issues. My root definition was was all-encompassing when I should have tried something a little smaller in scope. However, I am trying to think holistically so I was trying to include everything. Perhaps I need to try moving a few more subsystems into the environment for my definitions.

Still, I’m very, very pleased with this result. I benefited from having some time off work and I spent two solid days working on the TMA. I crammed in the whole block in a short period, didn’t really do any of the activities and still did well. Perhaps it was all still fresh in my mind.

Block 3 looks shorter in length but more difficult in application. Viable System Model (VSM) by the esteemed Stafford Beer. Another systematic approach by the looks of it, but this time derived from cybernetics. There is software that won’t run on my Mac. In fact, it won’t run on most Windows machines without a lot of effort – it was written for Windows 3.1! Thanks for the up-to-date software Mr Open University…

T306 Block 2: TMA02

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it but I actually submitted TMA02 on time. Well, it was 9 minutes past the official entry time but within the 12 hours leeway they give us, so I’m called that “on time”.

I was over two weeks late submitting TMA01 and only managed to get this one in due to having some time off work. We were going away but decided to save money and shelter from the appalling weather forecast. Instead of enjoying an icecream or fish and chips in Whitby harbour we ended up putting Ruby into nursery while I worked on my T306 assignment. Not the kind of week off I was thinking about.

Anyway, it is done now, even if I only completed one activity and worked through the TMA after a cursory read through the module notes. Not ideal, however I was fairly happy that I covered enough of the material to get a reasonable mark, and even if I didn’t do that well I did get some good, useful feedback from TMA01 so I’m sure that my tutor will do the same for this one.

TMA03 could be problematic too. I have two assignments to hand in next month; one for M257 (Putting Java to work) and my T306 assignment a week later. Doing two modules at once sucks, especially as I’m also working full time. There are people doing three modules at once and I have no idea how they do it!

Anyway, back to my M257 work. I’m running late on this one (surprise surprise). Real life will resume in 2015.

T306 Block 2: Activity 19

Note the main things you have learned in Part 1

I’ve skimmed over most of the activities in this block so far out of necessity. There’s been some interesting material and the course notes have made me consider aspects of IS that I wouldn’t have thought about.

For instance, I thought I had a good grasp on the difference between data and information. Previous OU courses have covered this: data are facts or bits of knowledge that are offered without context (like “16” or “Dave”) and information is data with added context (within conceptual frameworks). So, information would be, perhaps, seen on a page that collects together bits of data and displays it in a way that a user can understand it.

However, this block considers the difference between abstract data and data of interest. If someone collects together bits of data for consideration – in a database perhaps – then this is called “capta”.

Capta are a subset of data deemed to be of interest to a specified group of individuals who share the same theoretical and conceptual frameworks for
these items and also have some interest in them.

I’d never heard of capta before and I’m yet to be convinced of its usefulness as a term and concept, but we’ll see. I don’t have a problem using data and capta interchangeably but I think there may be issues with definitions later on during analysis if I’m not aware of the difference.

It’s important to consider information in context, so perhaps this extra definition will be helpful.

The rest of Part 1 of the block was very interesting and gave me some extra meat to my IS sandwich. I will now consider other aspects of a system to be part of an IS – development teams etc – that I might not have considered before. The course materials also pushed looking at stakeholder biases during analysis, which is something I really need to work on. I will also need to work on understanding how I know things from my own experiences. Our experiences colour our views on things. This is something that is being covered quite a bit in the course and I lost marks in TMA01 due to me not mentioning this.

That will do for now. Onwards with Part 2.

T306 Block 2: Activity 5

Describe an Information System with which you are involved

This activity requires me to construct a system map of an IS. Due to my prior tardiness I’m going to miss that bit out, although I’ll come back and revisit it if necessary.

I’m going to describe an ancient IS from a previous employment. This was back in the ’90s before large-scale computer systems were the norm. The site where I worked had a collection of “dumb” terminals – there were visual display units that had a rudimentary screen and keyboard and only had enough on-board processing to display information from a central computer mainframe. Each dumb terminal was connected to a local telephone point using a technology called “data over voice” (DOV). There was a DOV box on each end of the telephone line.

In the computer room was a BT Krone frame where these telephone lines ended up. The data from the connected DOV box was fed into the core of the IS in some fashion (I can’t quite remember this aspect of it) so that the dumb terminals could connect to the mainframe. The mainframe itself stored this data on some utterly ancient Winchester disks. There were two computer guys that maintained the mainframe and I was involved in the maintenance side of the dumb terminals (among other things).

Some of our more remote locations used a modem to connect to the mainframe. Comms guys may be impressed by the ultra-fast 2k4 modems we had at our disposal. I’m never going to complain about the slowness of my 10Mbps Internet connection at home, that is for certain.

The IS had a purpose – it supported the work of the various locations – and it did it well. For 1990.

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.