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Research Challenges In Information Systems


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  • 1. ARTICLE IN PRESS International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 Research notes Research challenges in information systems Guy Fitzgerald Department of Information Systems and Computing, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK 1. Introduction 1.1. Brunel University Brunel was established as a University in 1966, as part of a major expansion of higher education in the UK, driven by the Government of the time. It was named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, probably the greatest Victorian engineer of the industrial revolution, reflecting the universities original focus on science and knowledge for the benefit of society. Brunel has now expanded beyond its original science, engineering and technology origins and through a series of initiatives and mergers it now reflects a much broader subject base. 1.2. Department of Information Systems and Computing (DISC) The Department of Information Systems and Computing (DISC) at Brunel University is one of the largest centres for information systems (IS) research in Europe, it has strength in depth and breadth with around 45 research active members of staff covering a wide range of areas in the field. Members of the Department have published extensively in refereed journal papers, conference papers, books, and chapters in books, obtaining a rating of 5 in the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The Department has achieved substantial support for its research from the UK Research Councils, the European Union and other sources with active grants currently totalling around d4 million plus matching funds of approximately d3.3 million from a wide range of industrial collaborators. In addition a collaborative project led by DISC has just been awarded a total of d4.8 million by the EPSRC for the creation of a ‘Multidisciplinary Assessment of Technology Centre for Healthcare’ (MATCH). DISC was established in 1992 and has quickly become the largest and most successful departments of its type in the country, competing with the best in the world. DISC has 45 academic staff, made up of eight Professors, seven Senior Lecturers and 30 Lecturers. There are also 5 Visiting Professors, 11 Research Fellows, 11 Research Assistants and 110 Ph.D. students E-mail address: (G. Fitzgerald). 0268-4012/03/$ - see front matter r 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/S0268-4012(03)00055-0
  • 2. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 338 (including 25 part-time). To support the academic staff and departmental activities there are 15 secretarial and administrative support staff, and a Technical Support Group of 9. DISC has always invested heavily in its own computing facilities together with its own Technical Support group which enables it to offer a much higher standard of IT support to its staff and students. 2. Research in DISC 2.1. Research strategy The overall research strategy of DISC is to produce research of international quality in five theme areas. DISC particularly emphasises applied research with focus on outputs and deliverables of relevance to industry and commerce. Where appropriate, DISC strives to set the direction in a particular area, either by setting new standards or benchmarks or by defining the academic content and dimensions of an area. So for example in connection with the academic discipline of IS we are seeking to address one of the overarching questions relating to the discipline, in this case the debate concerning the nature and discipline of IS itself, indeed whether it is a discipline at all, and importantly whether it matters or not. Professors Ray Paul, Guy Fitzgerald and David Avison (Visiting Professor) have been instrumental in this debate, initiated by an opinion piece in European Journal of Information Systems (Paul, 2002) and elsewhere. David Avison and Guy Fitzgerald have also helped establish the academic study of Information Systems Development Methodologies represented by many papers, including their review of methodology ‘eras’ (Avison and Fitzgerald, 2003), and the third edition of their book (Avison and Fitzgerald, 2002). 2.2. DISC and the RAE DISC’s overall research strengths were recognised by its obtaining an Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) rating of 5 in the latest (2001) exercise. The RAE is a Government measurement of research quality in universities in the UK. It uses a standard scale to award a rating for each submission from 1 (lowest) to 5* (highest) on a seven point scale. DISC’s rating of 5 indicates research of ‘‘international excellence in up to half of the research activity submitted and to attainable levels of national excellence in virtually all of the remainder’’. International excellence is seen by the Panel as ‘the gold standard’ and such work is comparable to ‘‘the best work being carried out anywhere in the world’’. Additionally DISC submitted the highest number of active researchers of any department submitting to the Panel. This was an excellent result for DISC, particularly for such a new and young department. 2.3. DISC research structure Research in DISC is overseen by a Research Director who reports to the Research Board. DISC identifies the major strategic research themes which are supported with internal staff and external appointments. Within each generic theme are a number of Research Centres and below that a number of Research Groups. A Research Centre is usually led by a Professor and is a major
  • 3. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 339 focus of research activity with various projects, external funding and involving both DISC and external collaborators. A DISC Research Group may be exactly the same as a Centre but is typically a somewhat less formal collection of usually internal researchers collaborating on a common research topic. It may or may not be externally funded but nevertheless they can be very effective and produce excellent output. Research Groups are allowed to emerge informally and dynamically. This prevents the heavy hand of bureaucracy inhibiting collaborations and new initiatives from emerging. Once a grouping appears to be emerging it will be supported and encouraged by the department, whilst any that are not active over a period will die. This balance between control and freedom seems to work well and is very encouraging to young researchers who may not wish to be straightjacketed into a particular group so they can set up their own, if they can find collaborators. This results in a very dynamic research environment. An example of this is the growth and establishment of the Brunel Broadband Research Centre (B3RC). This emerged from the initiative of an existing lecturer and some research of a new appointment that has now been focused and consolidated into an important new research Group in the Department. 2.4. Research themes in DISC The five research themes in DISC contain a wide range of topics, structures and activities undertaken within the department. Each theme incorporates one or more DISC Research Centres. The five research themes in DISC are as follows: 2.4.1. Adaptive information systems This theme covers how information systems can be conceived and designed to better adapt to the dynamics of modern organisations, both in terms of system flexibility and the co-evolution of organisations and information systems. This theme incorporates the: Centre for Living Information Systems * IS Flexibility Group * Ongoing research includes: An empirical study of flexibility in organisations * The analysis of the dimensions of flexibility * The evolution of theory towards the conceptualisation of organisations and their information * systems as ‘living systems’. 2.4.2. Information systems development This theme includes the general areas of systems development methodologies and software engineering processes. The theme incorporates the: IS Development Group * Centre for Health Informatics and Computing *
  • 4. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 340 Ongoing research includes: Negotiation of requirements using diagrams * A framework for comparing systems development methodologies * Component based design and integration * Test automation and program slicing. * 2.4.3. Strategic information systems Research in this area focuses on the strategic management, application and implementation of IS/IT in contemporary international and national organisations. The theme incorporates the: Centre for Strategic Information Systems (CSIS) * Brunel Broadband Research Centre (B3RC) * Ongoing research includes: Identification of ‘best practice’ in the strategic planning and evaluation of IS/IT * Global and cultural issues of electronic commerce * Change management and process organisation. * 2.4.4. Interaction and multimedia This theme includes research in Human Computer Interaction (especially related to the worldwide web and mobile applications), Information Visualisation to reveal structures and relationships in a variety of information, and the multi-modal communication of multimedia content. The theme incorporates the: VIVID (Vivid Visualisation Development) * Multimedia Group * e-business Interaction Group * Ongoing research includes: The usability of speech-based systems * Co-operative agents in electronic commerce systems * User-centred design in a ‘wired’ home * Cognitive and social perspectives of information visualisations * Cognitive issues in web-based applications * Communication protocols with ‘quality of service’ (QoS) provision * Human factors issues in virtual environments * The ‘New Usability’ research agenda. *
  • 5. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 341 2.4.5. Simulation and modelling Research concentrates on the use of discrete event computer-based simulation modelling to understand and inform decision-making processes, and the development of computationally intelligent techniques to the analysis of large datasets. The theme incorporates the: Centre for Applied Simulation Modelling * Intelligent Data Analysis Group * Decision Support Systems Group * Process and Knowledge Management Group. * Ongoing research includes: Simulation to inform decision-making in the health service * Simulation to assess the outcome of business process redesign * Modelling of multivariate time series data * A study of gene interaction and regulation * Multi-objective filtering for non-linear systems. * 2.5. Sample research projects Two example research projects are described in more detail as an indication of IS research strengths in the department. 2.5.1. SITE (Semantic Integration Environment) The SITE project, led by Professors Paul and Macredie and Dr. Lycett addresses flexibility of information systems, driven by the dynamic needs of business, and its achievement using a component-based approach to development. The idealistic metaphor that drives the project is one of a dynamic ‘jigsaw puzzle’ that allows elements of software to be assembled quickly and easily, and changed just as quickly and easily, so that (a) information systems can maintain a closer ‘fit’ with the business and (b) change be enabled more quickly and cost effectively. This involves the investigation and enhancement of several areas of existing knowledge. First, the semantics of business, i.e. the elements that are important to the business, including descriptions of the flow of typical business situations, planned activities carried out in the course of business, the logical constraints that may apply and events that the business may need to be aware of. Here, understanding is particularly focused at understanding the generic and specific nature of elements, making description more business centric and, importantly, making meaning explicit. Second, the connection of elements, including how architecture can provide reference models for the flexible connection of business elements, relationships between appropriate architectures, the interpreta- tion, mapping and filtering of meaning and behaviour alongside mappings to the specifics of implementation. Third, automated support, i.e. improving the end-to-end support that existing CASE tools offer in support of the application of the techniques, methods and architectures that will flow from research in the previous two areas. In each of these areas, the aim is to refine and improve existing techniques and tools in the light of current shortcomings observed by industrial
  • 6. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 342 organisations in practice and integrate these advances into a whole that achieves the flexibility objectives. The project is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and involves a number of significant industrial collaborators; Unisys, Abbey National, Computer Associates, Aonix, a Gores Technology Group company, and Xansa. 2.5.2. Centre for Strategic Information Systems (CSIS) CSIS was set up by Professor Wendy L. Currie in 1999 with the mission to obtain research funding linking strategic business issues with the latest technology. Over the last 4 years, CSIS has generated over d1.2 million in research funding from the European Union; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Centre currently has three on-going research projects, employing four full-time Research Assistants (RAs). Two of these projects focus upon the deployment, hosting and integration of business critical information systems using application service providers (ASPs). An ‘ASP manages and delivers application capabilities to multiple entities from data centers across a wide area network or virtual private network’. Industrial partners include: Cable & Wireless; Ernst & Young; ICI; Netstore; and Fullard Learning. This research was driven by a pilot study carried out in Silicon Valley in the United States and Europe (Britain, France and Germany) which showed that the ASP business model needs to address important deployment and integration issues for it to become widely adopted by small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The research aims to identify first, the infrastructure for integration among ASPs and hosting providers and, second, how ASPs deliver a combination of applications to create an end-to-end, integrated service and third, how customers can audit security and network links when their data co-exists on the same hardware/software platform as other ASP customers. The research has completed a large-scale questionnaire survey focusing on the potential customer-base of ASPs and extensive field-work into ASPs. This provides data on application deployment, hosting and integration methods and techniques across the taxonomy of ASP and has helped identify the key reasons for the failure of the first phase of the ASP business model. 2.6. DISC Ph.D. programme This strong research culture of the department is epitomised by its very successful Ph.D. programme. Both full-time and part-time Ph.D. and M.Phil. degrees are offered and there are currently 110 research students registered in the Department. Students are generally attached to, and undertake research closely allied with, one of the Department’s research themes. As a result they benefit from close contact with leading-edge researchers and industrial collaborators. The Department’s commitment to research is reflected by the significant number of Ph.D. bursaries it offers. Currently there are 38 Ph.D. bursaries funded by the department in addition to externally funded research assistants and fellows. The department operates a first and second supervisor system and together with the Research Director they are responsible for supporting research students through the development, management and appraisal of their work. Students also benefit from a specific Research Methods course run by the Department and the opportunity to participate in modules from our various M.Sc. courses.
  • 7. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 343 2.7. Scholarship For example, DISC provides editors of both the major European information systems journals, i.e. the Information Systems Journal (ISJ) and the European Journal of Information Systems (EJIS). Other journals edited out of DISC (providing one or more editors) are Logistics Information Management, and Virtual Reality. This is in addition to many staff being on the Editorial Boards of leading journals. The following book series are either edited at Brunel, or have one of the editorial team at Brunel: Butterworth-Heineman’s Information Systems, Springer- Verlag’s BCS owned Practitioners, and Springer-Verlag’s Applied Computing, and the IEE Professional Applications of Computing. DISC staff have also been prominent Guest Editors for special issues of journals. Recent examples are: ACM Transactions on Computer–Human Interaction, Benchmarking: An International Journal, Journal of Information Technology, British Journal of Educational Technology and the Special Issue of the Journal of Management in Medicine, on Health Informatics. This last was in receipt of the first ever ‘Highly Commended Special Issue Award’ from Emerald, the publisher of over 130 journal titles, in competition with over 100 special issues. 3. Conclusion DISC has grown rapidly in size and quality, particularly in the last few years, and become a significant presence in the information systems and computing area, not just nationally but internationally. This development is set to continue with DISC having ongoing growth objectives, focusing on its research grant funding, Ph.D. and postdoctoral cohort sizes, and outputs in top quality journals. The aim is to continue to deliver excellent applied research of value to the community and to be an internationally renowned centre for information systems and computing. With our focus on applied research we would be happy for any potential academic or industry collaborators to please contact us to discuss areas of mutual interest. mailto: Guy.Fitzgerald@ Research notes If any Information Systems Research Institute, Department, School or Industry group wishes to feature their research profiles in this Journal, please contact Prof. Nimal Jayaratna, Research Notes Editor—International Journal of Information Management, School of Information Systems, Curtin University, GPO Box U1987, Perth, Western Australia, 6845. Email: References Avison, D. E., & Fitzgerald, G. (2003). Where now for development methodologies? Communications of the ACM, 46(1), 79–82.
  • 8. ARTICLE IN PRESS G. Fitzgerald / International Journal of Information Management 23 (2003) 337–344 344 Avison, D. E., & Fitzgerald, G. (2002) Information system development: Methodologies, tools and techniques (3rd ed.) (pp. 592). London: McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-709626-6. Paul, R. J. (2002). (IS)3: Is Information Systems an intellectual subject? European Journal of Information Systems, 11(2), 174–177. Further reading Selected references (relating to each DISC research theme) Adaptive Information Systems: Fitzgerald, G., Philippides, A., & Probert, P. (1999). Information systems development, maintenance and enhancement: Findings from a UK study. International Journal of Information Management, 40(2), 319–329. Information Systems Development: Harman, M., & Jones, B. (2001). Search based software engineering. Journal of Information and Software Technology, 43(14), 833–839. Lycett, M. (2001) Understanding ‘Variation’ in component-based development: Case findings from practice. Information and Software Technology, 43(3), 203–213. Baldwin, L. P., Clarke, M., & Jones, R. (2002). Clinical ICT systems: Augmenting case management. Journal of Management in Medicine, 16(2/3), 188–198. Strategic Information Systems: Currie, W. L., & Seltsikas, P. (2001). Exploring the supply side of IT outsourcing: Evaluating the emerging role of application service providers. European Journal of Information Systems 10, 123–134. Fitzgerald, G. (2001). IT at the heart of business: A strategic approach to information technology. The IS Management Series (Vol. 2) (p. 104). Swindon: British Computer Society, ISBN 1-902505-26-3. Interaction and Multimedia: Agius, H. W., & Angelides, M. C. (2001). Modeling content for semantic-level querying of multimedia. Multimedia Tools and Applications, 15, 5–37. Chen, C., Cribbin, T., Morar, S. S., & Macredie, R. (2002). Visualizing and tracking the growth of competing paradigms: Two case studies. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(8), 678– 689. Thomas, P., & Macredie, R. D. (2002). Introduction to the new usability. ACM Transactions on Computer–Human Interaction, 9(2), 69–73. Perry, M., O’Hara, K., Sellen, A., Brown, B., & Harper, R. (2001) Dealing with mobility: understanding access anytime, anywhere. ACM Transactions on Computer–Human Interaction, 8(4), 323–347. Simulation and Modelling: Eldabi, T., Irani, Z., Paul, R. J., & Love, P. E. D. (2002). Quantitative and qualitative decision making methods in simulation modelling. Management Decision, 40(1), 63–73. Liu, X., Cheng, G., & Wu, J. (2002). Analysing outliers cautiously. IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering, 14, 432–437. Choudrie, J., & Hlupic, V. (2001). Teams and business process change: A cross case comparison. Journal of Intelligent Systems, 10(5–6), 473–507. Guy Fitzgerald is Professor of Information Systems at Brunel University and is Director of Research in the Department of Information Systems and Computing. Prior to this he was at Birkbeck College, University of London, Templeton College, Oxford and Warwick University. He has also worked in the computer industry with companies such as British Telecom, Mitsubishi and CACI Inc., International. His research interests are concerned with the effective management and development of information systems (IS) and he has published widely in these areas. He is co-author, with David Avison, of Information Systems Development: Methodologies, Techniques and Tools and he is founder and co-editor of the Information Systems Journal (ISJ) from Blackwell Publishing. He is Managing Director of the Brunel Broadband Research Centre.