While there will always be a demand for competent Information Systems (IS) professionals, let’s face it: in this economy, competence isn’t good enough. It’s the merely competent who will get the pink slips when the bottom line demands payroll cuts. The real plum jobs, the kind that provide tenure for those supercompetents who practice them well, are those that have more far-reaching implications than a simple ability to maintain the servers and keep the databases in order. One way to achieve this pinnacle of success is to become a reflective IS scholar-practitioner.
What does that mean? Let’s take look at the components of the term. Obviously, the individual is involved in the Information Systems field. A scholar-practitioner is defined as an individual whose training and experience in a particular field allows him or her to bring together two realms of experience: that of scholar, who studies in-depth the components, theories, and implications of their field, and that of actual practitioner, who labors in the field daily. This hybrid role lends the strengths of both realms to his or her practice. For example, those physicians who remain active in scholarly research (such as clinical drug trials) while still seeing patients on a regular basis may be considered scholar-practitioners. In the IS field, a scholar-practitioner would be an individual who studies the intricacies of the IS field, while maintaining an active role in delivering IS services to others.
A reflective practitioner employs a careful, open cognitive process to examine beliefs and goals about his discipline, in order to gain a deeper understanding that leads to actions that may improve the discipline in general. It follows, then, that a reflective IS scholar-practitioner is one who carefully considers the issues affecting his own IS practice, learns to solve those problems, and then communicates the results in a scholarly manner.
The role of the reflective IS scholar-practitioner is richer and more complex than those of the standard reflective IS practitioner or IS scholar-practitioner, and for many IS professionals doubtless more satisfying than either individually. The reflective IS scholar-practitioner is a sort of “Renaissance Man” of the IS field, one who generalizes rather than specializes, bringing a larger frame of reference to the day-to-day management of IS. In so doing, he offers a clearer view of the Big Picture. In some cases, his reflective, problem-solving nature combines with their scholarly tendencies to provide solutions for IS problems not just within their own institution, but everywhere. Consider Vinton Cerf, the inventor of Internet Protocol (IP) and one of the fathers of the Internet; or Linus Torvalds, the creator of the open-source Linux computer operating system. Both gentlemen might be considered “poster children” for the reflective IS scholar-practitioner movement.
The reflective IS scholar-practitioner (RISSP) must be adept at handling not only the ordinary day-to-day problems that might emerge within his purview, but must also any unique problems as well. A wide-ranging and authoritative skill-set is required for the RISSP to remain effective in his role as IS “über-geek”:
- Comprehensive knowledge of IS method and theory
- Collaborative work skills
- The ability to work “on-the-fly” and calmly assess each situation
- The ability to become deeply involved in the intricacies of his organization
- The willingness to step back occasionally to take a look at the larger picture
- The ability to synthesize data, using techniques from both scholarly and technical experience
- The ability to effectively document changes as they occur
- Better-than-average communications skills, both verbal and written
It should go without saying that any RISSP worth his salt must have a comprehensive knowledge of IS — not just its current configuration, but also its history and future potential. This requires constant self-education, of course. Creativity and flexibility are also musts, because the RISSP must be able to pull together disparate bits of knowledge, while working with what he has, in order to properly understand the nature of the problem and to recommend potential solutions. In his role as assembler and communicator of data, the RISSP must of course be able to work collaboratively with others, as part of a team; this is a keystone skill, for without it, all is lost.
Working calmly “on-the-fly,” as events occur, is of prime importance in real-life situations, where solutions may not be able to await ivory-tower solutions. This skill, as well as the ability to become intricately involved in the day-to-day-functioning of the organization and the willingness to step back and look back at the Big Picture occasionally, are central to the RISSP’s skill-set. So is the ability to pick data, techniques, methods, and potential solutions from every aspect of his education and experience and tie them together in a comprehensive new way, whenever this is necessary. Of course, as a scholar and communicator of ideas, the RISSP must also be willing and able to clearly document and share the situation and its solution, acting as its historian; to do so, he must be able to communicate extraordinarily well.
The modern RISSP is faced with the same issues that face all IS professionals; however, they may experience the entire difficult range of problems during the course of their duties, often many at once. These can include:
- Rapid evolution of IS technology
- Ethical issues
- Increasing difficulty in communicating effectively
- Computer crime
- The evolution and growth of electronic commerce
- A tendency to focus on technology at the expense of information
- Quality assurance issues
- End user support
- Academic relevance
When IS was limited to technologies associated with the spoken and printed word, it was easy to keep up with technological change; indeed, until the emergence of first radio/television and then the desktop computer, probably the most significant technological innovation was the printing press. Now, technology changes at such a rapid pace that all IS professionals are hard-pressed to keep up with it. This is bad enough for the specialist, but particularly difficult for the RISSP, since he must be aware of changes across the length and breath of the field. Also especially cogent are the ethical issues involved with IS, especially Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and privacy. Because software is easy to copy, and few effective countermeasures to this problem have been found, the RISSP must be constantly aware of the need to insure that his organization is clean of copyright infringements, accidental or not.
Privacy has become a huge issue in the IS field. Every variety of data is available in cyberspace, from credit card numbers to medical information. Large corporations seem to allow this data to leak onto the Internet constantly, mostly because effective ways have yet to be found to plug the security holes inherent to the dominant but poorly designed operating systems in use. It is the role of the RISSP to step back and find these solutions.
Despite ease of access to communications, communicating itself is harder than ever; this is another issue that the RISSP should seek to overcome — as is the sad state of computer security, which takes us back to the privacy issue. Current operating and related information systems are unfortunately exploitable by unethical individuals with sufficient computing knowledge. This feeds the computer crime issue, which will surely remain a significant problem until the security issues are effectively dealt with. Meanwhile, electronic commerce, which requires tighter security than is commonly available, continues to grow in economic importance; it behooves the RISSP to keep an eye on it, lest fraud and theft increase at an exponential rate.
RISSPs should also fight the tendency for IS professionals to focus on new technology at the expense of the information itself. It does no good to have the fastest computer on the block if the programs you run on it consist of buggy COBOL code inexpertly ported from ancient FORTRAN cards. One good example of this was the infamous Y2K problem, which originated with the fact that IS professionals were still reusing old code modules that were written back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Y2K was so far away that no one bothered to take the new millennium into account. In this vein, new software code must continue to be subjected to rigorous quality assurance (QA) and testing measures, lest one end up with a product that is so bloated and buggy that it requires endless security patches as hackers find new ways in. Related to this is the need to maintain good end user support, since it is the end users who act as a last line of defense against bugs and errors that QA fails to catch.
The last issue strikes at the heart of what it means to be a RISSP. Since before the turn of the millennium, most practitioners have not viewed academic IS researchers as particularly relevant to their everyday lives. Yet how can reflective IS scholar-practitioners even develop without the academic and research-oriented parts of their background? It is clearly necessary for those concerned with this issue to ensure than the academic research remains relevant to the real life of the IT professional, else the RISSP will cease to exist as such.
IS trends will also significantly impact the RISSP going forward. At this time, they include:
- The expansion of e-business
- Enterprise elaboration
- Emergence of digital firms
- The rapid growth of networking
- The growth of Electronic Data Interchange
- Continued evolution of end-user computing
- Increased interoperability between systems
- The evolution of open-source information systems.
Unless we somehow slip back into the Stone Age, e-business and concurrent globalization will continue apace. Enterprise systems will continue to evolve, making infrastructure software — which is crucial to the daily operation of any IS organization — even easier to access and use. Already the digital firm, which keeps track of all relationships with clients, customers, employees, and suppliers by means of IS, has begun to emerge: core processes are digitally enabled in many organizations, private and otherwise, allowing a more rapid, effective response to changing conditions. It is safe to say that IS will continue to play a vast role in this digital evolution for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, networking between businesses and organizations will continue to grow, and will eventually make the current version of the Internet seem both obsolete and quaint. This, too, cannot be accomplished without a plethora of IS professionals, and the RISSP must be available to offer solutions as they become necessary.
Telecommuting is one outgrowth of networking and the easy access to broadband, making it less and less necessary for people to work together in an office. Add to that teleconferencing via computer, and why bother going into a central office at all? We may be approaching a time when most organizations and businesses become entirely decentralized, like the Internet, and there are signs that this already happening.
We live in the Information Age, and it may be that no age of humanity was ever more aptly named. IS professionals, not just RISSPs but many others, are making this more of a reality every day as they continue to evolve existing technologies like interoperability between information systems all over the world, as Electronic Data Interchange forms like PDF are created and widely adopted, and as end-user computing continues to evolve to the benefit of all. Perhaps the most exciting trend, however, is one that has become most evident in the two decades: open-source information systems. UNIX and Linux led the way, offering open-source OS kernels that individual programmers could tinker with and add to. GNU (for “GNU is not UNIX”) provides another open-source computing option. In a curious mix of two IS formats — GNU and the written word — wiki sites (as exemplified by Wikipedia) offer forums where users can add and edit content at will. While Wikipedia and its ilk do have their problems (sometimes wide-open systems can be difficult to police), it seems likely that this experiment will continue to evolve in a positive direction, in which any user can make a contribution, however small, to the global store of knowledge.