A Language/Action Based Approach to Information Modelling

A Language/Action Based Approach to Information Modelling

Paul Johannesson (Stockholm University/Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch378
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There are several different views of the role of information systems. Two of the most important are the data view and the communicative view. According to the data view, the primary purpose of an information system is to provide a model of a domain, thereby enabling people to obtain information about reality by studying the model. In this respect, an information system works as a repository of data that reflects the structure and behaviour of an enterprise, and the system provides data that can be used for decisions about the enterprise. In contrast, the communicative view states that the major role of an information system is to support communication within and between organisations by structuring and coordinating the actions performed by organisational agents. The system is seen as a medium through which people can perform social actions, such as stating facts, making promises, and giving orders. The data and communicative views of information systems are mirrored by two different views of organisations: the functional view and the constructional view (Dietz, 2003a). The functional view focuses on the functions of an organisation with respect to its environment, in particular, the resources that the organisation consumes and produces. A model of an organisation from a functional perspective is a black-box model, as it shows the interactions with the environment but not the internal mechanisms. The constructional view, on the other hand, focuses on how behaviour and function are brought about by the operations and structure of an organisation. A model of an organisation from a constructional perspective is a white-box model as it shows the inner workings of the organisation. In information systems design, the starting point has often been based on the data view and the functional view, though frequently augmented by concepts like reasoning and monitoring. However, these views easily lead to a computerand technology-biased management of the communication taking place in an organisation, and they benefit from being complemented by the communicative and constructional views. A promising theoretical foundation for these views is the language/action approach, which is based on theories from linguistics and the philosophy of language. In the language/action approach, business actions are modelled on the notions of speech acts and discourses, which provide a basis for distinguishing between different communication phases, such as preparation, negotiation, and acceptance. The purpose of this chapter is to outline how the language/action approach can be used as a basis for the information modelling of communicative aspects in organisations.
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One important foundation of the language/action approach is speech act theory (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969). The basic insight of speech act theory is that language can serve purposes other than that of representing the states of affairs of the world. Certain statements are equivalent to actions. For example, when someone says “I apologise,” “I promise…,” or “I name this ship…,” the utterance changes the psychological or social reality. Statements such as these are called speech acts, and they enable people to use language as a means for acting as well as coordinating action.

In Searle (1969), a classification of speech acts is proposed based upon the way in which a speech act affects the social world. Searle identified five classes: assertive, commissive, directive, declarative, and expressive. An assertive is a speech act, the purpose of which is to convey information from a speaker to a hearer, e.g., “the cat is on the mat.” A commissive is a speech act, the purpose of which is to commit the speaker to carry out some action or bring about some state of affairs, e.g., “I promise to bring it back.” A directive is a speech act, where the speaker requests that the hearer carry out some action or bring about some state of affairs, e.g., “Please bring me the salt.” A declarative is a speech act, where the speaker brings about some state of affairs by the mere performance of the speech act, e.g., “I hereby baptise you Samuel.” An expressive is a speech act, the purpose of which is to express the speaker’s attitude, e.g., “I like coffee.”

In order to understand the role of speech acts, it is helpful to view human communication as taking place in three different worlds:

Key Terms in this Chapter

Business Process: This is comprised of business transactions that realise a business objective.

Business Transaction: This consists of speech acts that result in a deontic effect.

Deontic Effect: This is the establishment of an obligation or the fulfilment of an obligation.

Speech Act: This is a linguistic act performed with the intention of changing the social relationships between agents, in particular, creating deontic effects.

Instrumental Act: This is an act performed in order to change the physical world.

Information System: This is a system for supporting communication within and between organisations.

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