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Colin Johnson’s blog

Information Systems vs Innovation

It is common for a particular sector to be dominated by one or two large, commercially-available (or, occasionally, freely available open-source) computer-based systems to manage the information within organisations. I wonder if this has the side effect of militating against innovation within organisations.

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago, to talk about the new student admissions computer system that the University is installing. This is the industry-standard system, used by probably 75% of UK universities. Obviously, there is some scope for such systems to be customised; nonetheless, they come saddled with a certain amount of assumption about the way in which information is being handled within that kind of organisation (otherwise, you would just use a generic database system).

As we discussed how this system was going to roll out, it was clear that we were making some kind of compromise between how we wanted to do admissions and how the system was set up to handle admissions. In quite a lot of these discussions, it became clear that the assumptions in the system were rather deeply embedded, and so the system “won” be battle of how to do this kind of activity. It became clear that we hadn’t just bought a system to manage our information; we had bought a whole heap of workflow assumptions with it too.

Does this matter? From an administrative point of view, perhaps not. The argument can just about be made that all organisations in the sector have broadly similar requirements, and the major players in the provision of information systems will gradually drift towards these requirements.

But, it might matter in terms of competition. One of the tenets of the current government’s policy is that systems improve be competition, and to drive competition we need diversity of practice so that new ideas come into the sector. But, in a situation like this, innovation (and thus diversity) is quashed because the systems that are managing the information can’t be readily adapted to handle innovative experiments with practice. As someone said at the meeting: “We’ve been working carefully on how to attract students to our courses for the last five years, and now we have to throw all that away because it isn’t supported by the admissions system.”.

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