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Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950–1968

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2011

Thomas Haigh
Affiliation:
THOMAS HAIGH is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania.

Abstract

During the 1960s, many academics, consultants, computer vendors, and journalists promoted the “totally integrated management information system” (MIS) as the destiny of corporate computing and of management itself. This concept evolved out of the frustrated hopes of 1950s corporate “systems men” (represented by the Systems and Procedures Association) to establish themselves as powerful “generalist” staff experts in administrative techniques. By redefining the computer as a managerial “information system,” rather than a simple technical extension of punch-card “data processing,” the systems men sought to establish jurisdiction over corporate computing and to replace accountants as the primary agents of managerial control. The apparently unlimited power of the computer supported a new conception of information, defined as the exclusive domain of the systems men (assisted by operations research specialists and computer technicians). While MIS proved impossible to construct during the 1960s, both its dream of all-encompassing automated information systems and the resulting association of information with the computer endured into the twenty-first century.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2001

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References

1 MIS has received little attention from historians. It is discussed briefly in Cortada, James W., Information Technology as Business History: Issues in the History and Management of Computers (Westport, Conn., 1996), 202–12Google Scholar.

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19 Agre, Philip E., “Institutional Circuitry: Thinking About the Forms and Uses of Information,” Information Technology and Libraries 14 (Dec. 1995): 225–30Google Scholar.

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21 The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., supports this claim of a distinct new postwar usage of information to denote something “without the implication of, reference to a person informed … and which is capable of being stored in, transferred by, and communicated to inanimate things.” For a linguistically oriented discussion of this issue, see Nunberg, Geoffrey, “Farewell to the Information Age,” in The Future of the Book, ed. Nunberg, Geoffrey (Berkeley, 1997), 103–38Google Scholar. The use of ahistorical claims to universalize information is discussed in Bowker, Geoffrey, “Information Mythology: The World Of/As Information,” in Bud-Frierman, Lisa, ed., Information Acumen: The Understanding and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business (New York, 1994Google Scholar). All attempts to provide coherent definitions of information that unify different kinds of recent usage have failed. For examinations of this divergence, see Wellisch, H., “From Information Science to Informatics: A Terminological Investigation,” Journal of Librarianship 4 (1972): 157–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Belkin, N. J. and Robertson, S. E., “Information Science and the Phenomenon of Information,” Journal of the ASIS 27 (1976): 197210Google Scholar.

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24 Berkeley, Edmund C., Giant Brains, or Machines That Think (New York, 1949), 1017Google Scholar. Industrial automation receives its classic historical treatment in Noble, David F., Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (New York, 1984Google Scholar). For Diebold's original usage of “automation,” see Diebold, John, Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory (New York, 1952Google Scholar). Automation enjoyed very wide coverage in the business press of the 1950s and early 1960s; see Diebold, John, “Automation—The New Technology,” Harvard Business Review 31 (Nov.–Dec. 1953): 6371Google Scholar; Gibson, Malcolm H., “Automation Should Be Your Whole Philosophy,” Office 51 (Jan. 1960): 134, 136Google Scholar; Kelley, George J., “We're Easing into Automation,” The Controller 25 (Feb. 1957): 66–9Google Scholar. Only during the mid-1960s did a more nuanced conception gain ground, even in elite business discourse; see Silberman, Charles E., The Myths of Automation (New York, 1966Google Scholar).

25 Drucker, Peter F., The Practice of Management (New York, 1954), 346Google Scholar.

26 Levin, Howard S., Office Work and Automation (New York, 1956Google Scholar). For an early use of the term “knowledge worker,” see Drucker, Peter, “The Next Decade In Management,” Dun's Review and Modern Industry 74 (Dec. 1959): 5261Google Scholar. Drucker continues to prefer “knowledge revolution” to the more technical “information revolution.” For a general discussion of information-society theorists, including the origin and spread of different versions, see Webster, Frank, Theories of the Information Society (New York, 1995Google Scholar).

27 Levin, Office Work, 8. Levin's distinction is taken up to criticize data-processing technicians in Stone, Milton D., “Data Processing and the Management Information System: A Realistic Evaluation of Data Processing's Role,” in American Management Association, ed., The Modern Business Enterprise in Data Processing Today: A Progress Report—New Concepts, Techniques and Applications (New York, 1960Google Scholar).

28 Leavitt, Harold J. and Whisler, Thomas L., “Management in the 1980s,” Harvard Business Review 36 (Nov.–Dec. 1958): 41–8Google Scholar. Later articles assert that Leavitt and Whisler coined the term “information technology,” although Bello, in “How to Cope with Information,” mentions that the term was used in 1957 to derive the name of a maker of scientific information retrieval equipment called “Infotek.” Some of their ideas were anticipated by T. F. Brasshaw, “Automatic Data Processing Methods,” in Anthony, Robert N., Automatic Data Processing Conference (Boston, 1955Google Scholar). The author, a partner of the consulting firm Cresap, McCormick and Paget, suggested that effective use of EDP would “force” a shift to a new kind of management based on more deliberate design of control systems and organizational structure.

29 Simon addressed this specific question in Simon, Herbert A., “The Corporation: Will It Be Managed By Machines?” in Anshen, Melvin and Bach, George Leland, eds., Management and Corporations, 1985 (New York, 1960), 1755Google Scholar. The claim of centralization was disputed in Burlingame, John F., “Information Technology and Decentralization,” Harvard Business Review 39 (Nov.–Dec. 1961): 121–6Google Scholar. For a reevaluation of the significance of the Leavitt and Whisler article, see Applegate, Lynda M., Cash, James I. Jr., and Mills, D. Quinn, “Information Technology and Tomorrow's Manager,” Harvard Business Review 66 (Nov.–Dec. 1988)Google Scholar.

30 Stein, Charles Jr., “Some Organizational Effects of Integrated Management Information Systems,” in American Management Association, ed., The Changing Dimensions of Office Management (New York, 1960), 82–9Google Scholar.

31 The AMA had a long history of promoting the modernization of administrative techniques, first through the prewar work of its office executives group and later through a series of seminars on the use of electronic equipment. As the use of this equipment became commonplace, the organization reoriented its efforts toward a broader consideration of the use of computers for management. The conference proceedings themselves are contained in American Management Association, ed., The Changing Dimensions of Office Management. The seminal role of this conference is discussed in Society for Management Information Systems, Research Report One: What Is A Management Information System? (Chicago, 1972Google Scholar). For the Navy's embrace of the concept, see Dillon, John H., Data Processing in Navy Management Information Systems (Washington, D.C., 1959Google Scholar).

32 The idea of “integrated data processing” originated at U.S. Steel and was publicized through an AMA conference held in February of 1954. See American Management Association, ed., A New Approach to Office Mechanization: Integrated Data Processing through Common Language Machines (New York, 1954Google Scholar). Otterbein, J. M., “An Integrated Data Processing Application,” Systems and Procedures 12 (June–July 1961): 1930Google Scholar, deals with IDP using a variety of automated office machines but no electronic computers.

33 Gallagher, James D., Management Information Systems and the Computer (New York, 1961), 15–17, 23Google Scholar. The genesis of the Continuing Seminar on Management Information Systems is discussed in the introduction and foreword.

34 The first quote is from Haslett, J. W., “Towards the Totally Integrated Management Information System at Shell Oil Company,” in American Management Association, ed., Advances in EDP and Information Systems (New York, 1961), 135–40Google Scholar. The second is from Meacham, Alan D. and Thompson, Van B., eds., Total Systems (Detroit, 1962Google Scholar). For the SPA conference, see Christian, Roger W., “The Total Systems Concept,” in Systems and Procedures Association, ed., Ideas for Management: 14th International Systems Meeting (Cleveland, 1961), 1520Google Scholar, and other articles in the same volume, including J. W. Haslett, “Functions of the Systems Department,” 5–9.

35 Christian, “The Total Systems Concept,” 1961: 16, 17, 18.

36 For a recent collection of papers on the use of systems approaches in a variety of social arenas, see Hughes, Agatha C. and Hughes, Thomas P., eds., Systems Experts and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After (Cambridge, Mass., 2000CrossRefGoogle Scholar). The development of “systems engineering” techniques through the seminal SAGE and ATLAS projects is discussed at length in Hughes, Thomas P., Rescuing Prometheus (New York, 1998Google Scholar). The quote is from Kaufman, Felix, “Data Systems That Cross Company Boundaries,” Harvard Business Review 44 (Jan.–Feb. 1966): 141–55Google Scholar.

37 Gallagher, Management Information Systems and the Computer, 175.

38 Revolution through total systems, operations research, and computers is expounded in Klein, Herbert E., “Computer in the Board Room,” Dun's Review and Modern Industry 64 (Sept. 1964Google Scholar). For a more critical take on the claims of revolution, see Anshen, Melvin, “The Manager and the Black Box,” Harvard Business Review 36 (Nov.–Dec. 1960Google Scholar). On high modernist ideology, see Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, 1998Google Scholar). For an insightful and detailed intellectual history of strategic planning, an idea closely related to MIS, see Mintzberg, Henry, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York, 1994Google Scholar).

39 The alleged quote from GE is in Murdick, Robert G., Introduction to Management Information Systems (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1977Google Scholar).

40 On the intertwining of operations research and MIS, see Halbrecht, Herbet, “Through a Glass Darkly,” Interfaces 2 (Aug. 1972): 117Google Scholar.

41 For an example of the claim that corporate management would know more than divisional managers about their own operations, see Kirkpatrick, Forrest Hunter, “Partners for Tomorrow—Manager and Machine,” Business Automation 14 (Oct. 1967): 36–9, 54Google Scholar.

42 The first quote is from the conclusion to Evans, Marshall K. and Hague, Lou R., “Master Plan for Information Systems,” Harvard Business Review 40 (Jan.–Feb. 1962): 103Google Scholar. During the 1950s and early 1960s the Soviets, like the Japanese in the 1980s, functioned in managerial literature both as proof of the efficacy of whatever reform the author advocated and as a threat to justify the urgency of its implementation. See, for example, Forest, Robert B., “The Operations Research Society of America: An Interview with ORSA's President,” Datamation 9 (Oct. 1963): 32–9Google Scholar. The 1963 survey was distributed widely to an executive audience as Garrity, John T., “Top Management and Computer Profits,” Harvard Business Review 4 (July–Aug. 1963): 6–8, 10, 12, 172, 174Google Scholar; Garrity, John T. and McNerney, John P., “EDP: How to Ride the Tiger,” Financial Executive 31 (Sept. 1963): 1926Google Scholar.

43 Guest, L. C., “A Temperate View of Data Processing Management and Management Information Systems,” in American Management Association, ed., Advances in EDP and Information Systems (New York, 1961), 713Google Scholar. On “total systems” as a mandate for separation from the controller, see Bararb, George J. and Hutchins, Earl B., “Electronic Computers and Management Organization,” California Management Review 6 (Fall 1963): 3342Google Scholar.

44 Pomeroy, Richard W., “The ? Box,” Systems &Procedures Journal 14 (Nov.–Dec. 1963): 29Google Scholar.

45 Chandler discusses the changing locus of decision-making power and the importance of staff experts, in Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., “Recent Developments in American Business Administration and their Conceptualization,” Business History Review 35 (Spring 1961): 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The quote is from Neuendorf, Charles W., “The Total Management Information System,” Total Systems Letter 1 (March 1965): 18Google Scholar. For examples of the “MIS makes a big business work like a small business” refrain, see Herbert E. Martenson, “New Techniques Permit Old Solutions,” Journal of Systems Management (Feb. 1970): 24–7; Smith, Theodore A., “From Burden to Opportunity: The Revolution in Data Processing,” in American Management Association, ed., The Changing Dimensions of Office Management (New York, 1960), 2631Google Scholar. On the importance of “systems” to Litton, see Glenn E. Bugos, “System Reshapes the Corporation,” in Hughes and Hughes, Systems, Experts and Computers.

46 The quote is from A. T. Spaulding Jr., “Is the Total System Concept Practical?” Systems it Procedures Journal (1964): 28–32, although similar sentiments were widely expressed well into the 1970s, most venomously in Hanold, Terranee, “An Executive View of MIS,” Datamation 18 (Nov. 1972): 6571Google Scholar.

47 See Saunders, Paul R., “Management Information Systems,” in Lazzaro, Victor, ed.. Systems and Procedures: A Handbook for Business and Industry (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968Google Scholar). The idea that operational, tactical, and strategic management was built on a common base of information was always inherent in the total MIS concept (Gallagher, Management Information Systems and the Computer, mentions “a sort of pyramidal structure in the information requirements of a firm's total management”), but the illustration of this relationship as a pyramid seems to have suddenly emerged during the late 1960s following the seminal Robert V. Head, “Management Information Systems: A Critical Appraisal,” Datamation 13, May 1967. Head's separation of MIS into three related levels explicitly followed Robert N. Anthony's earlier separation of managerial decision making into strategic, managerial control and operational control levels in Planning and Control Systems: A Framework for Analysis (Boston, 1965Google Scholar).

48 See Dearden, John, “Can Management Information be Automated?Harvard Business Review 42 (March–April 1964): 128–35Google Scholar, and MIS Is a Mirage,” Harvard Business Review 50 (Jan.–Feb. 1972): 90–9Google Scholar.

49 The quotation, and most of the précis in this paragraph, is taken from Dearden, “MIS Is A Mirage,” 1972. Discussion of “vertical” information systems and the desirability of a logistics information system can be found in Dearden, John, “How to Organize Information Systems,” Harvard Business Review 43 (March–April 1965): 6573Google Scholar. See also Dearden, John, “Computers: No Impact on Divisional Control,” Harvard Business Review 45 (Jan.–Feb. 1967): 99104Google Scholar, and Myth of Real-Time Management Information,” Harvard Business Review 44 (May–June 1966): 123–32Google Scholar.

50 Dearden, John and McFarlan, F. Warren, Management Information Systems: Text and Cases (Homewood, Ill., 1966Google Scholar). Another early assault came in Browne, Dudley E., “Management Looks at Management Information Systems,” in American Management Association, ed., Advances in Management Information Systems (New York, 1962), 1316Google Scholar. This criticizes misplaced “computopia” and warns that revolutionary change risks a “systems dictatorship” more suitable to the Soviet sphere.

51 See, for example, Martino, R. L., “A Generalized Plan for Developing and Installing a Management Information System,” Total Systems Letter 1 (April 1965): 16Google Scholar. This was one of the more visible attempts to formulate a structure for MIS. It appeared in an earlier version as “The Development and Installation of a Total Management System,” Data Processing for Management (April 1963): 31–7, and was reprinted in the collection, Schoderbek, Peter P., ed., Management Systems (New York, 1967Google Scholar).

52 RCA's ten-year plan is offered for emulation by its customers in Becker, James L., “Planning the Total Information System,” in Meacham, Alan D. and Thompson, Van B., eds., Total Systems (Detroit, 1962), 6670Google Scholar. Trade journals regularly profiled modest systems as “Phase I” of a much larger effort; for example, see Anonymous, “Total System in the Mill,” Business Automation (1965): 22–9; Cooke, William F. and Rost, William J., “Standard Cost System: A Module of a Management Information System,” Journal of Systems Management 20 (March 1969): 1116Google Scholar. For RCA's spare parts system, see Cohen, Henry M., “A MIS That Scores As A Decision-Maker,” Business Automation 14 (Nov. 1967): 44–8Google Scholar.

53 Taylor, James W. and Dean, Neal J., “Managing to Manage the Computer,” Harvard Business Review 44 (Sept.–Oct. 1966): 98110Google Scholar; Dean, Neal J., “The Computer Comes of Age,” Harvard Business Review 46 (Jan.–Feb. 1968): 8391Google Scholar; Canning, Richard G., “What's the Status of MIS?EDP Analyzer 7 (Oct. 1969): 114Google Scholar.

54 Alexander, Tom, “Computers Can't Solve Everything,” Fortune 80 (Oct. 1969): 126–9, 168, 171Google Scholar.

55 The Arthur Young author is Donkin, Robert G., “Will the Real MIS Stand Up?Business Automation 16 (May 1969Google Scholar); McKinsey and Company, Unlocking the Computer's Profit Potential (New York, 1968Google Scholar); Ridley Rhind, “Management Information Systems: Some Dreams Have Turned to Nightmares,” Business Horizons (June 1968): 37–46. For the warnings of “computeritis,” see the article written by two members of Andersen, Arthur, Konvalinka, J. W. and Trentin, H. G., “Management Information Systems,” Management Services 2 (Sept.–Oct. 1965): 2739Google Scholar.

56 Jones, Curtis H., “At Last: Real Computer Power For Decision Makers,” Harvard Business Review 48 (Sept.–Oct. 1970): 7589Google Scholar. Similar sentiments were presented in Boulden, James B. and Buffa, Elwood S., “Corporate Models: On-Line, Real-Time Systems,” Harvard Business Review 48 (July–Aug. 1970): 6583Google Scholar. The was not universally acknowledged, however; for example, one prominent management theorist held that executives were incapable of properly understanding information and so should rely on experts to guide them through its selection and application. See Ackoff, Russell L., “Management Misinformation Systems,” Management Science 14 (1967): B14756CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Zani, William M., “Blueprint for MIS,” Harvard Business Review 48 (Nov.–Dec. 1970): 95100Google Scholar. The bottom-up nature of MIS efforts in practice is also discussed in McFarlan, F. Warren, “Problems in Planning the Information System,” Harvard Business Review 49 (March–April 1971): 7589Google Scholar.

58 A fascinating round-table discussion, during which the SMIS leadership strive and fail to define MIS, is transcribed in Society for Management Information Systems, Research Report One: What Is A Management Information System (Chicago, 1972Google Scholar). The quote is from Milton Stone and is on page 7. Stone elsewhere defined SMIS as “only the infosystems elite … large companies, big government, well-heeled campuses.” Stone, Milt, “Editor's Point: The House That Incompetence Built,” Infosystems 19 (Oct. 1972): 25Google Scholar. SMIS was eventually redubbed the Society for Information Management (SIM), in which guise it persists to this day. MIS Quarterly remains a leading academic journal on the use of computers in organizations.

59 The definition is from Morton, Michael S. and McCosh, Robert, “Terminal Costing for Better Decisions,” Harvard Business Review 46 (May–June 1968): 147–56Google Scholar. The Nolan quotation is from Nolan, Richard L., Managing the Data Resource Function (New York, 1974), 27Google Scholar. See also Robert V. Head, “MIS-II: Structuring the Data Base,” journal of Systems Management (Sept. 1970): 37–8. For an early definition of MIS as a reservoir of information, see Christian, “The Total Systems Concept,” 7. See also Martin, James, Computer Data-Rase Organization (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1977Google Scholar); Nolan, Richard L., “Computer Data Bases: The Future is Now,” Harvard Business Review 50 (Sept.–Oct. 1973Google Scholar)

60 The quote is from SMIS, Research Report One, 1972, 11. An example of a 1970s MIS textbook with a business-school orientation is Murdick, Robert G. and Ross, Joel E., MIS In Action (St. Paul, 1975Google Scholar). Dozens of such volumes were published during the late 1960s and 1970s, many of them paying considerable attention to “the systems approach” as an allencompassing philosophy. For examinations of management's actual use of information, see Lucas, Henry C., Why Information Systems Fail (New York, 1975Google Scholar), and Mintzberg, Henry, Impediments to the Use of Managerial Information (New York, 1975Google Scholar).

61 As early as 1973, editorial writers in the usually upbeat Infosystems had begun to identify MIS as a “dirty word” in need of rehabilitation. It informed its readers that Univac “deliberarively refrains from using the term MIS” for its large-scale, integrated system. Laton McCartney, “To MIS but not to MIS at Univac,” Infosystems (June 1973): 35–8. See also Anonymous, “…MIS, the Impossible Dream?Infosystems 20 (Feb. 1973): 70Google Scholar. For the switch to new terms for research on computer systems to support executives, see Rockart, John F. and Bullen, Christine V., eds., The Rise of Managerial Computing: The Best of the Center for Information Systems Research (Homewood, Ill., 1986Google Scholar). The use of MIS to describe specific computerized management and control systems now seems limited to the public sector, though the related term “information management systems” remains more generally popular.

62 W. F. Dyle, “The Name Game,” CIO Magazine (15 Jan. 1995). On ERP, see Davenport, Thomas H., “Putting the Enterprise in the Enterprise System,” Harvard Business Review 76 (July–Aug. 1998Google ScholarPubMed). For a presentation of business intelligence in MIS-like terms, see Michael Vizard, “Yahoo and IBM Head for a Collision on the Road to Business Intelligence,” Infoworld. com (12 Feb. 2001).

63 For a manager's wide-ranging and historically informed discussion of structural issues in corporate IT management as “politics,” see Strassmann, Paul A., The Politics of Information Management (New Canaan, Conn., 1995Google Scholar).

64 Davenport, Thomas H. with Pursak, Laurence, Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment (New York, 1997), 3Google Scholar.

65 For a recent summary of the productivity paradox debate, see Madrick, Jeff, “Computers: Waiting for the Revolution,” New York Review of Books 45 (26 March 1998): 2933Google Scholar. The distinction between automating and informating is central to Zuboff, Shoshana, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (New York, 1988Google Scholar).

66 The quote is from Killian, G. E., “After the Honeymoon,” The Hopper 5 (Oct. 1954Google Scholar). For an influential early account of 1990s reengineering, see Hammer, Michael, “Reengineering Work—Don't Automate, Obliterate,” Harvard Business Review 68 (July–Aug. 1990Google Scholar).

67 On the eclipse of systems analyst as a job title, see Phillips, Tim, “The Last of an Evolving Breed,” The Guardian (London) (26 Feb. 1998Google Scholar), online edition. MIS is used as a foil to the desirable qualities of the CIO in Thomas Kiely, “The Once and Future CIO,” CIO Magazine (Jan. 1991): 44–58.

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Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950–1968
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Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950–1968
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Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950–1968
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