The Role of Critical and Reflective Thinking in the Education and Training of Information Systems Practitioners

Brian Hopkins

School of Design and Communication Systems
Anglia Polytechnic University
Chelmsford CM1 1LL



Background to the Research

The research project explores the philosophical and pedagogical foundations of our approaches to the teaching of Information Systems (IS) in universities in the UK. The motivation for the work is the continuing expressions of dis-satisfaction from our clients/users regarding the quality of the systems which we devise for them (especially in terms of their outputs) along with what seems to be a matching adherence within our universities to a worldview which is firmly rooted in the rationalist traditions of the Enlightenment.

In a career spanning close to 40 years in IS/computing the author, both as a practitioner and as a teacher, has observed the two areas with an increasing air of despair that we can so persistently ignore the complaints of the people who are intended to be the beneficiaries of our efforts. Not only do we ignore the complaints but we have perfected a defensive strategy which involves us in blaming them for either not understanding the technicalities of computing or for not being able to communicate to us the primary informational requirements associated with their work.

Rarely does the IS community, both practitioners and teachers, seem to recognise that there might be a measure of fault in our whole approach to the provision of organisational IS and that this might be attributable, at least in part, to the way that we educate and train aspiring practitioners.

The research project sets out to investigate the ways in which we educate our future IS professionals in UK universities, seeking to test the hypothesis that we are perpetuating through our programmes the mindsets and attitudes which have failed the field of IS development over the years. This founding assertion is not "Luddite" in its stance; there is a ready recognition that IS development is in part about technical competence (and that that part is a vital prerequisite for effective and successful IS). What it is proposing is that there are significant non-technical (or socio/psychological) factors which remain largely understated in our current courses.

Outline of the Research Process

The project has been under way for around three years, on a part-time basis. It is now at the point where a considerable proportion of the data collection and analysis has been completed, a large amount of reading has been done and several apparently promising avenues of investigation have been explored and then (sometimes reluctantly) rejected.

Initially we spent many hours debating the multi-faceted nature of "failure" in IS development. This was important as a formative influence in the process of clarification of the perceptions of the nature of the "problem", although at times it appeared to be a circular exercise! This early stage has since proved to be extremely important in refining the framework of investigation which has now emerged. This framework is both conceptual and practical; it informs the author's methodological approaches at both of those levels, enabling and enriching both the intellectual activity and its practical expression in the form of outcomes of, say, discourse analysis work.

The data gathering work has concentrated on material and documentation produced by the universities for both internal and external consumption and material and papers issued by the professional bodies which cover the IS/computing field (mainly in the UK but also in the USA; in addition, it is apposite to refer here to a recently-produced draft of proposals for an Information Systems-centred Curriculum - ISCC '99 which is the result of an industry/academe collaborative project supported by the US Government).

Specifically, the material collected and analysed includes, from the universities their prospectuses, student handbooks, module descriptions, examination papers and scripts, in-course assignment specifications and responses, transcripts of role-play activities; from the professional bodies their statements of philosophy, their examination syllabi, curricular position statements and internal discussion papers, and proceedings from conferences which had IS/computing as one of the major themes.

The main tool of analysis used is a technique called Discourse Analysis (Potter and Wetherell, 1994). It is used to illustrate and draw out the signals and messages which are, sometimes unconsciously, transmitted by our verbal and written utterances, and to gauge what these words and phrases actually do in the context of our teaching and of our students' later practice.

In parallel, there has been an intensive and extensive programme of reading covering a wide spectrum of topics and sources including explorations of "failure" in IS systems (such as Bignell and Fortune, 1984 and Sauer, 1993), alternative views on IS development methods and approaches (for example, Checkland and Scholes, 1991, Ehn, 1988, Greenbaum and Kyng, 1991, Hirscheim and Klein, 1989, Mumford and Weir, 1979, Suchman, 1987, Walsham, 1993 and Winograd and Flores, 1988), perspectives on technology and society (for example, Law, 1991, Grint and Woolgar, 1997 and Latour, 1987), insights into management and organisations (as in Vickers, 1970, 1973, Morgan, 1997, Burrell and Morgan, 1979, Pugh, 1985) and a variety of pedagogical schools of thought and practice.

Interim Conclusions

Although it must be acknowledged that these thoughts and outcomes are, of necessity, tentative and require further substantiation, the initial reactions to the investigation are largely confirmatory of the original hypothesis i.e. they support the contention that in the university education and training of the IS professionals of the future there is a forceful positivist, or technical rationalist, influence, both philosophically and pedagogically, pervading our marketing/recruitment, our curriculum design, our teaching practices, our assessment methods and our perceptions of the requirements of the the potential employers of our graduates.

Current Status

Working from this basis the project is now concentrating on the identification and investigation of the mechanisms which enable the inculcation and perpetuation of this stance within our courses. The aim is to isolate specific attitudes and mindsets which act at one and the same time as enforcement and boundary-setting agents. Examples of such mechanisms which are presently being "tested" include the use of closed lists in specifications of the curricula of modules/courses; teaching/learning practices which are based on an ontology which assumes that the world is one where the objectives of IS can usually be clearly and unambiguously stated (or at least ought to be!); creation of class exercises and tutorial case studies which promote the belief in the sufficiency of technical excellence and the secondary status of "users" in the IS development process.

Further Work

The work on the mechanisms will involve returning to the empirical data so far gathered and analysing them from the specific standpoint of the mechanismic framework. This is a significant piece of research in its own right and will take much of 1999.

At the same time the outcomes of this process will feed into the writing of the thesis. So, it is envisaged that this dual processing will gather momentum in late 1999 and that throughout 2000 the efforts will be devoted increasingly to the writing of drafts of the chapters and their gradual synthesis into a coherent final document.

The target date for submission of the thesis for examination is the Spring of 2001. If this is achieved it will have meant that the total duration of the project will have been five years and three months approximately.


Bignell, V. and Fortune, J., (1984) Understanding Systems Failures, Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK

Checkland, P. and Scholes, J., (1991) Soft Systems Methodology in Action, Wiley, Chichester, UK

Burrell, G. and Morgan, G., (1979) Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis, Gower, Aldershot, UK

Ehn, P., (1988) WorkOriented Design of Computer Artefacts, Arbetlivscentrum, Stockholm, Sweden

Greenbaum, J. and Kyng, M., (1991) Design at Work: cooperative design of computer systems, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey, USA

Grint and Woolgar (sorry, details mislaid at the moment)

Hirschheim, R. and Klein, H.K., (1989) "Four Paradigms of Information Systems Development", Communications of the ACM, Vol.32, No.10, pp.1199-1216

Latour, B., (1987) Science in Action: How to follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA

Law, J., (ed), (1991) A Sociology of Monsters: essays on power, technology and domination, Routledge, London, UK

Morgan, G., (1997) Images of Organisations, Sage, California, USA

Mumford, E. and Weir, M., (1979) Computer Systems in work Design: The ETHICS Method, Wiley, New York, USA

Potter, J. and Wetherell, M., (1994) Discourse and Social Psychology: beyond Attitudes and Behaviour, Sage, London, UK

Pugh, D.S. et al (1985) Writers on Organisations, Sage, California, USA

Sauer, C., (1993) Why Information Systems Fail: a Case Study Approach, Alfred Waller, Henley-on-Thames, UK

Suchman, L.A., (1987) Plans and Situated Actions: the problem of human-machine communication, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Vickers, G., (1970) Freedom in a Rocking Boat, Penguin Press, Middlesex, UK

Vickers, G., (1973) Making Institutions Work, Halsted Press, New York, USA

Walsham, G., (1993) Interpreting Information in Organisations, Wiley, Chichester, UK

Winograd, T. and Flores, F., (1988) Understanding Computers and Cognition,: a New Foundation for Design, Ablex Corporation, Norwood, New Jersey, USA