Boell & Cecez-Kecmanovic (2015) What is an Information System


This paper aims to advance understanding of in- formation systems (IS) through a critical reflection on how IS are currently defined in the IS literature. Using the hermeneutic approach for conducting lit- erature reviews the paper identifies 34 definitions of IS in the literature. Based on the analysis of these 34 definitions four different views of IS are distin- guished: a technology view emphasizing the techno- logical aspects of IS; a social view emphasizing the sociocultural aspects; a socio-technical view empha- sizing the interconnection of technology and social elements; and a process view emphasizing the activi- ty orientation of IS. The paper critically examines the contributions and limitations of these different ap- proaches for understanding and theorizing IS. Based on this examination the paper argues to for the need to develop an additional, alternative sociomaterial conceptualization of IS based on a non-dualist, rela- tional ontology.

Citation Sebastian K. Boell, Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic (2015). What is an Information System. Proceedings of the 48th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, pp. 4959–4968. DOI

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Boell, Sebastian K. and Cecez-Kecmanovic, Dubravka},
doi = {10.1109/HICSS.2015.587},
isbn = {978-1-4799-7367-5},
journal = {Proceedings of the 48th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences},
pages = {4959--4968},
title = {{What is an Information System}},
year = {2015}

Key ideas

IS ~ Information Systems
IT ~ Information Technologies

Information systems (IS) involve a variety of information technologies (IT) such as computers, software, databases, communication systems, the Internet, mobile devices and much more, to perform specific tasks, interact with and inform various actors in different organizational or social contexts. Of general interest to the field of IS are therefore all aspects of the development, deployment, implementation, use and impact of IS in organizations and society. (p. 4959)

While this is widely recognized in the IS community, the term 'information system', which is foundational to the IS field, is rarely explicitly defined and examined, and is typically taken for granted … this lack of engagement is problematic as it can lead to fuzzy and unclear use of the concept of IS, and can hinder the formulation of a clear identity for the IS field as well. (p. 4959)

Definitions of IS are therefore of interest to the IS community as they can help in establishing a common ground for understanding and researching IS, and distinguishing IS as a field of inquiry from other fields. (p. 4959)

The key objective of this research is to advance understanding of IS, by critically reflecting on how IS are currently defined in the IS literature. (p. 4970)

To achieve this aim we apply the hermeneutic approach for conducting literature reviews (p. 4970)


1. Information Systems

What matters to IS is how technology is appropriated and instantiated in order to enable the realization of IS that fulfill various actors' – such as individuals, groups or organizations – information needs and requirements in regards to specific goals and practices. (p. 4959)

The concept of IS is central to the debate about the field's identity and its aims as understanding what an IS is has important implications for what IS researchers should research, what IS educational programs should contain and how they should be differentiated from IT programs or other business programs. (p. 4960)

2. Looking for Definitions of IS

According to the hermeneutic approach, as a research project progresses researchers gain a better understanding of the literature relevant to their project (p. 4960)

We decided to select those [definitions] meeting all of the following three criteria resulting in 34 definitions: (p. 4960)

  1. The definition appears in established scholarly publications including peer reviewed journals, conference proceedings, edited books, textbooks, and monographs;
  2. The definition is an explicit statement about what an IS is rather than an indirect implied understanding;
  3. The definition is intended for the IS field.

3. Definitions of IS

We used thematic analysis for thoroughly analyzing all 34 definitions with regard to each definition’s main emphasis. To ensure a common ground for comparison, analysis of definitions was based on each definition as it was originally expressed. (p. 4961)

From this analysis we identified four distinct conceptualizations of IS: (p. 4961)

  • A technology view;
  • A social view;
  • A socio-technical view;
  • And a process view.

These four views are based on the main aspect emphasized by each definition: (p. 4961)

  1. Technological aspects, including the processing, storage and transformation of data;
  2. Social aspects, emphasizing that IS are intrinsically social systems;
  3. Socio-technical aspects, arguing that IS include both social and technological components that are interrelated;
  4. Process aspects - conceptualizing IS in terms of performing and supporting activities and processes.

4. Discussing Definitions of IS

4.1 Discussion of the Technology View

The technology view of IS is generally driven by the observation that IT is important for organizations and that its importance has risen dramatically over the past few decades being now ubiquitously present in virtually every aspect of organizational life. (p. 4962)

The technology view points to an important aspect of IS, that is, its technological foundation. (p. 4962)

IS research and practice occupies a gap between software engineering and the business/organization. The technology view thus highlights the importance of IT to IS development, deployment and use in practice. (p. 4962)

The technology view urges IS researchers to focus their theorizing on technology and its role for and impact on organizations. (p. 4962)

4.2 Discussion of the Social View

The main rationale for the social view is that it is humans who use IS, interpret information generated by the system, create meanings and undertake actions. (p. 4962)

4.3 Discussion of the Socio-Technical View

4.4 Discussion of the Process View

5. Critique of Definitions

6. Discussion and Conclusion

ViewExemplary Definition
Technology View“The system utilises computer hardware and software; manual procedures; models for analysis, planning, control and decision making; and a database. The emphasis is on information technology (IT) embedded in organizations” (p. 181)
Social View“an information system is a social system, which has embedded in it information technology. The extent to which information technology plays a part is increasing rapidly. But this does not prevent the overall [information] system from being a social system, and it is not possible to design a robust, effective information system, incorporating significant amounts of the technology without treating it as a social system” (p. 215)
Socio-Technical View“the information systems field examines more than just the technological system, or just the social system, or even the two side by side; in addition, it investigates the phenomena that emerge when the two interact” (p. iii)
Process View“An IS is a work system whose process and activities are devoted to processing information, that is, capturing, transmitting, storing, retrieving, manipulating, and displaying information” (p. 451)

Table 1: Overview of Definitions of IS