Could the Work System Method Embrace Systems Concepts More Fully?

Could the Work System Method Embrace Systems Concepts More Fully?

Steven Alter (University of San Francisco, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-128-5.ch002
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The work system method was developed iteratively with the overarching goal of helping business professionals understand IT-reliant systems in organizations. It uses general systems concepts selectively, and sometimes implicitly. For example, a work system has a boundary, but its inputs are treated implicitly rather than explicitly. This chapter asks whether the further development of the work system method might benefit from integrating general systems concepts more completely. After summarizing aspects of the work system method, it dissects some of the underlying ideas and questions how thoroughly even basic systems concepts are applied. It also asks whether and how additional systems concepts might be incorporated beneficially. The inquiry about how to use additional system ideas is of potential interest to people who study systems in general and information systems in particular because it deals with bridging the gap between highly abstract concepts and practical applications.
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The idea of using the concept of work system as the core of a systems analysis method for business professionals was first published in Alter (2002), although the ideas had percolated for over a decade. Experience as vice president of a manufacturing software company in the 1980s convinced me that many business professionals need a simple, yet organized approach for thinking about systems without getting swamped in details. Such an approach would have helped our customers gain greater benefits from our software and consulting, and would have helped us serve them more effectively across our entire relationship. A return to academia and production of an IS textbook provided an impetus to develop a set of ideas that might help. Starting in the mid-1990s I required employed MBA and EMBA students to use the ideas in an introductory IS course to do a preliminary analysis of an information system in their own organizations. The main goal was to consolidate their learning; a secondary benefit was insight into whether the course content could actually help people understand systems in business organizations.

To date over 300 group and individual papers have contributed to the development of the work system method (WSM). At each stage, the papers attempted to use the then current version of WSM. With each succeeding semester and each succeeding cycle of papers, I tried to identify which confusions and omissions were the students’ fault and which were mine because I had not expressed the ideas completely or clearly enough.

Around 1997 I suddenly realized that I, the professor and textbook author, had been confused about what system the students should be analyzing. Unless they are focusing on software or hardware details, business professionals thinking about information systems should not start by describing or analyzing the information system or the technology it uses. Instead, they should start by identifying the work system and summarizing its performance gaps, opportunities, and goals for improvement. Their analysis should focus on improving work system performance, not on fixing information systems. The necessary changes in the information system would emerge from the analysis, as would other work system changes separate from the information system but necessary before information system improvements could have the desired impact.

After additional publications (available for download at helped develop various aspects of WSM, the overall approach became mature enough to warrant publication of a book (Alter, 2006) that combines and extends the main ideas from the various papers, creating a coherent approach that is organized, flexible, and based on well-defined concepts. Use to date by MBA and EMBA students (early career business professionals) indicates that WSM might be quite useful in practice. Recent developments motivated by widespread interest and concern about services and the service economy led to an attempt to extend the work system approach to incorporate the unique characteristics of services. The main products to date of those efforts are the service value chain framework and service responsibility tables. (Alter, 2007, 2008) Further development of WSM might proceed in many directions, including improving the concepts, testing specific versions in real world settings, and developing online tools that make WSM easier to use and more valuable.

WSM uses system concepts, but the priority in developing WSM always focused on practicality. System concepts and system-related methods that seemed awkward or difficult to apply were not included in WSM. For example, WSM might have incorporated certain aspects of soft system methodology (SSM) developed over several decades by the British researcher Peter Checkland (1999). An area of similarity is SSM’s identification of 6 key aspects of a “human activity system.” Those include customers, actors, transformations, worldview, owner, and environment. Based on an unproven belief that SSM is too abstract and too philosophical to be used effectively by most (American) MBA and EMBA students, WSM was designed to be very flexible but also much more prescriptive than SSM and much more direct about suggesting topics and issues that are often relevant for understanding IT-reliant work systems.

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Associate Editors
Table of Contents
Mehdi Khosrow-Pour
Chapter 1
Manuel Mora, Ovsei Gelman, Guisseppi Forgionne, Doncho Petkov, Jeimy Cano
A formal conceptualization of the original concept of system and related concepts—from the original systems approach movement—can facilitate the... Sample PDF
Integrating the Fragmented Pieces of IS Research Paradigms and Frameworks: A Systems Approach
Chapter 2
Steven Alter
The work system method was developed iteratively with the overarching goal of helping business professionals understand IT-reliant systems in... Sample PDF
Could the Work System Method Embrace Systems Concepts More Fully?
Chapter 3
Alfonso Reyes A.
This chapter is concerned with methodological issues. In particular, it addresses the question of how is it possible to align the design of... Sample PDF
The Distribution of a Management Control System in an Organization
Chapter 4
Phillip Dobson
This chapter seeks to address the dearth of practical examples of research in the area by proposing that critical realism be adopted as the... Sample PDF
Making the Case for Critical Realism: Examining the Implementation of Automated Performance Management Systems
Chapter 5
Jo Ann Lane
As organizations strive to expand system capabilities through the development of system-of-systems (SoS) architectures, they want to know “how much... Sample PDF
System-of-Systems Cost Estimation: Analysis of Lead System Integrator Engineering Activities
Chapter 6
Kosheek Sewchurran, Doncho Petkov
The chapter provides an action research account of formulating and applying a new business process modeling framework to a manufacturing processes... Sample PDF
Mixing Soft Systems Methodology and UML in Business Process Modeling
Chapter 7
Aidan Duane, Patrick Finnegan
An email system is a critical business tool and an essential part of organisational communication. Many organisations have experienced negative... Sample PDF
Managing E-Mail Systems: An Exploration of Electronic Monitoring and Control in Practice
Chapter 8
Stephen V. Stephenson, Andrew P. Sage
This chapter provides an overview of perspectives associated with information and knowledge resource management in systems engineering and systems... Sample PDF
Information and Knowledge Perspectives in Systems Engineering and Management for Innovation and Productivity through Enterprise Resource Planning
Chapter 9
Gunilla Widén-Wulff, Reima Suomi
This chapter works out a method on how information resources in organizations can be turned into a knowledge sharing (KS) information culture, which... Sample PDF
The Knowledge Sharing Model: Stressing the Importance of Social Ties and Capital
Chapter 10
Jijie Wang
Escalation is a serious management problem, and sunk costs are believed to be a key factor in promoting escalation behavior. While many laboratory... Sample PDF
A Meta-Analysis Comparing the Sunk Cost Effect for IT and Non-IT Projects
Chapter 11
Georgios N. Angelou
E-learning markets have been expanding very rapidly. As a result, the involved senior managers are increasingly being confronted with the need to... Sample PDF
E-Learning Business Risk Management with Real Options
Chapter 12
C. Ranganathan
Research on online shopping has taken three broad and divergent approaches viz, human-computer interaction, behavioral, and consumerist approaches... Sample PDF
Examining Online Purchase Intentions in B2C E-Commerce: Testing an Integrated Model
Chapter 13
Nicholas C. Georgantzas
This chapter combines disruptive innovation strategy (DIS) theory with the system dynamics (SD) modeling method. It presents a simulation model of... Sample PDF
Information Technology Industry Dynamics: Impact of Disruptive Innovation Strategy
Chapter 14
Shana L. Dardan, Ram L. Kumar, Antonis C. Stylianou
This study develops a diffusion model of customer-related IT (CRIT) based on stock market announcements of investments in those technologies.... Sample PDF
Modeling Customer-Related IT Diffusion
Chapter 15
Bassam Hasan, Jafar M. Ali
The acceptance and use of information technologies by target users remain a key issue in information systems (IS) research and practice. Building on... Sample PDF
The Impact of Computer Self-Efficacy and System Complexity on Acceptance of Information Technologies
Chapter 16
James Jiang, Gary Klein, Eric T.G. Wang
The skills held by information system professionals clearly impact the outcome of a project. However, the perceptions of just what skills are... Sample PDF
Determining User Satisfaction from the Gaps in Skill Expectations Between IS Employees and their Managers
Chapter 17
James Jiang, Gary Klein, Phil Beck, Eric T.G. Wang
To improve the performance of software projects, a number of practices are encouraged that serve to control certain risks in the development... Sample PDF
The Impact of Missing Skills on Learning and Project Performance
Chapter 18
Leigh Jin, Daniel Robey, Marie-Claude Boudreau
Open source software has rapidly become a popular area of study within the information systems research community. Most of the research conducted so... Sample PDF
Beyond Development: A Research Agenda for Investigating Open Source Software User Communities
Chapter 19
Milam Aiken, Linwu Gu, Jianfeng Wang
In the literature of electronic meetings, few studies have investigated the effects of topic-related variables on group processes. This chapter... Sample PDF
Electronic Meeting Topic Effects
Chapter 20
A. Durfee, A. Visa, H. Vanharanta, S. Schneberger, B. Back
Text documents are the most common means for exchanging formal knowledge among people. Text is a rich medium that can contain a vast range of... Sample PDF
Mining Text with the Prototype-Matching Method
Chapter 21
Francis Kofi Andoh-Baidoo, Elizabeth White Baker, Santa R. Susarapu, George M. Kasper
Using March and Smith’s taxonomy of information systems (IS) research activities and outputs and Newman’s method of pro forma abstracting, this... Sample PDF
A Review of IS Research Activities and Outputs Using Pro Forma Abstracts
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